Tuesday, March 28, 2017

732 (2017 #30). The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

The local book club I used to belong to (until their meetings moved to daytime, when I work) read this as their last selection, I suppose because it won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016.  I thought it was historical fiction, but I'd have to classify it as a historical fantasy - and, not being a fan of fantasy, I was somewhat disappointed.

The book starts well, with the introduction of the main character, Cora, her grandmother Ajarry who was captured in Africa, and her mother Mabel, who managed to escape their Georgia plantation.  The horrors of slavery are described realistically.  Cora is a strong woman, though, and she attracts the attention of Caesar, another slave who wants to escape.  It seems he thinks Cora might be a good luck charm, since her mother managed to get away.

But here's where the fantasy comes in.  The Underground Railroad in this book is an actual, subterranean, train with tracks.  From this point on, author Colson Whitehead seems to compress many years of African-American history into the novel.  In an interview with NPR, he said,

...once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, you know, it freed me up to play with time a bit more. And so, in general, you know, the technology, culture and speech is from the year 1850. That was my sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang. But it allowed me to bring in things that didn't happen in 1850 - skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it's all presented sort of matter-of-factly...

In a PBS interview, Whitehead says,

...each state she goes through is a different sort of state of American possibility.  South Carolina is a benevolent paternalistic state, where slaves are given programs for racial uplifting. North Carolina is a white supremacist state....so each stop is a sort of island in the “Gulliver’s Travels”-type sense.

I wish I'd read these interviews and some reviews before starting the novel.  While many parts were clearly unrealistic for the time period, other parts were confusing as to whether they were complete fantasy, or based on reality.  For example, the scenes in Indiana made me wonder if perhaps there was some sort of refuge for escaped slaves there.  This book is crying for a reader's guide within its pages.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

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