Thursday, July 4, 2019

Book 188: The Underground Railroad



"She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them."

Dates read: November 6-11, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times bestseller

Does anyone in popular American culture have a more valuable public endorsement than Oprah? She spent decades as the most trusted voice of American housewives through the power of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and when she's given a person or product her imprimatur, it's often a game changer. She's the reason Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz have the careers they do (whether or not that's a good thing, I'll leave up to you). When it turned out A Million Little Pieces was made up of a million little lies, half of the outrage felt like it was because someone had had the gall to lie to Oprah. And lately, I'm sure I can't even imagine how many more women joined Weight Watchers at her urging.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of her blessings have been the authors who wrote books which she included in her book club. Her power is such than in 2016, her selection of The Underground Railroad for that book club drove Colson Whitehead and his publisher to release it two months ahead of schedule. From there, it won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and ended up on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. Obviously that kind of attention had nothing to do with Our Lady Winfrey, but it probably helped the book become a #1 best-seller. Which means that a lot of people who might not have otherwise picked it up did, which is a good thing because this book bends time and history to lay out a damning case on the way America has done wrong by Black people.

Set in the antebellum South, The Underground Railroad focuses on the journey of one slave woman, Cora, towards freedom. The granddaughter of a woman who survived the Middle Passage and was enslaved in Georgia, and the daughter of a slave who ran away when she was just a child, Cora has spent much of her life as an outcast even among her own community. So she's surprised when another slave, Caesar, approaches her to run away with him to find the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead's alternative history, the railroad is literal...there are stations built into the earth that spirit slaves away to the north.

Run away they do, and Cora finds herself first in South Carolina, which in this world has outlawed slavery but holds ownership of Black people itself, and then distributes them as it sees fit in service work. But they're also secretly infecting men with syphilis to study it, and sterilizing women...and then Cora finds out she's being chased by a man called Ridgeway, a slave catcher. So the next stop is North Carolina, which has abolished slavery too...out of a fear that the Black majority population of the state will rebel against their masters. It's replaced their labor with white indentured servants, and escaped slaves are publicly executed. Cora hides there for a while, but before she can devise an escape, she's caught by Ridgeway. That doesn't mean she stops fighting for her freedom, but freedom isn't an easy thing for a slave to find.

I wanted to love this. I wanted to find it a revelation. And it's good, very good actually. Whitehead's prose is both lovely and powerful. And I understand why he can't "go easy" on Cora...it reads sometimes like she's a punching bag for the universe and she barely gets room to breathe before she's knocked down again, but that's probably what it feels like to be African-American, obviously back then and to a lesser but still very real degree even now. And the characters are interesting, with Whitehead even writing one-off chapters from perspectives other than Cora's, to give us context for the people who have an impact on Cora's life and where they're coming from when they interact with her.

But I just never connected with and got emotionally invested in the novel the way I do for the books that distinguish themselves for me as "great". I cared only in a kind of distant way about Cora, and for all that the side characters were developed they mostly just faded away...when Caesar and Cora are separated relatively early in the proceedings, for instance, I never found myself missing him on the page. And while I cared about Cora and what was going to become of her, it was never in the way where I wanted to skip ahead to see how she might make it around each obstacle thrown in her path. I'm not quite sure why that was, honestly...like I said, Whitehead's writing is incredible so it's not for any lack of ability to make her more compelling on his part. It just didn't quite get there for me. Nevertheless, it's a very good and powerful book, and one that I'd recommend to just about everyone.

One year ago, I was reading: Disgrace (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

Three years ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

2 comments:

  1. I could not read this book. I tried, honestly. I couldn't get past the scene early on about the escaped slave and what they did to him when they got him back. It's not that I doubt it--I just couldn't take it.

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    Replies
    1. It was often hard to read in that way...Whitehead is unsparing about the brutality.

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