Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead *****

"Stolen bodies working stolen land"
Throughout the history of the United States from the Declaration of Independence to the present, black Americans have had to walk a line between life and liberty and violent suppression. Two authors have recently demonstrated this delicate balance with their writing. I reviewed Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly a few months ago and now I have The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Both books deliver an engaging story with small slices of terror and brutality slipped in between. Anyone who wishes to ignore the history of murder and abuse can easily do so, reading the books like I watch medical shows on TV. I close my eyes at any hint of blood. I will follow their lead with my comments. Slavery was horrific, now on to the story.

Whitehead chronicles the The Underground Railroad  by focusing on different people associated with it, including escaped slaves, railroad conductors, and slave catchers. However the main character is Cora who escapes from a plantation in Georgia and travels throughout the antebellum United States. One of the ways Whitehead lightens the story is by conceiving of The Underground Railroad as an actual underground railroad. The introduction of fantasy reminds me of Mary Poppins' spoonful of sugar.

Whether you want the brutal history and a fantasy, this is the book for you. The writing and storytelling are excellent.

In between the black and the white, the book is full of many subtle reminders of the ups and down of history.

At an optimistic rally, a negro leader gives the following speech that will be repeated again and again over the next two centuries.
"By proving the negro's thrift and intelligence...he will enter into American society as a productive member with full rights....We need to slow things down. Reach an accommodation with our neighbors and, most of all, stop activities that will force their wrath upon us."
The book is not above defending delusion.
"We can't save everyone. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth."
An excellent book regardless of your approach to it. A masterpiece.

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