The Underground Railroad

Looking Out the Window

undergroundWe wrap up 2016 with this year’s National Book Award winner, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. In the New York Times, Whitehead’s novels are described in the following way: “Each one of them goes to great lengths to break free of the last one, of its structure and language, of its areas of interest. At the same time, they all have one thing in common — the will to work within a recognizable tract of popular culture, taking advantage of conventions while subverting them for the novel’s own purposes.” In this one, Whitehead takes the slave narrative and blends it with a bit of magical realism. The underground railroad—which was really a network of abolitionists who helped escaped slaves—becomes a literal means of transportation. There are train tracks, stations, conductors. Cora, a runaway slave, looks for safety and travels by train, underground. Hot on her trail, so to speak, is slave-catcher Ridgeway. In her journey, Cora is a tourist attraction at a living museum in South Carolina, she hides in an unenthusiastic abolitionist’s attic that overlooks a park which is the site of weekly lynchings in North Carolina, she searches for a station under the eye of the monstrous Ridgeway in Tennessee, and she finds a tenuous respite on a black-run farm in Indiana. Whether or not she’ll make it to freedom is what drives the novel forward.

Jennifer: Well, I might add something to that intro. Cora is haunted by the disappearance of her mother when she was a child. Mabel, her mother, is the slave who mysteriously got away. She abandoned Cora, and this abandonment is devastating to Cora. It is also behind Ridgeway’s mad campaign to re-capture Cora. He failed to recover her mother; he doesn’t want to fail to recover her.

I know you don’t like the fantastical, so how did you deal with this?

Lara: Well, I dealt with it because he writes of the railroad in such a way that it seemed real, like it could have been, even though that would have been impossible. He didn’t make you reach to see that possibility . . . it was clearly in front of you and totally plausible.

Jennifer: Which, by the way, is a good definition of how magical realism works (favorite Example of Magical Realism: Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.)

So, here’s my quick assessment: the first fifty pages were mildly difficult to follow. Then, it was stunning. I loved it. I loved it so much. I ran out and bought Zone One, which I can’t wait to read. There, he combines the literary novel, character-driven fiction, with the apocalyptic. There are zombies in Manhattan! Can’t wait!

Should The Underground Railroad have won the National Book Award?

Lara: Yes and no. There’s no doubt what Whitehead has conceived–the idea that the underground railroad was an actual railway system–is tremendous. And, the book might have been the strongest among the finalists. For me, though, the book fell flat emotionally. I felt like he held the characters a little too out of reach from the reader. On its own merits, the book is an achievement; when I compare it to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a book that probably had even more characters, I felt a much stronger emotional connection with its people and their stories. Whitehead is a skilled writer, and highly imaginative—but his book lacked heart. Maybe I am just upset that her book wasn’t even a finalist.

Jennifer: OMG. Stop the smack! I think I completely, unequivocally disagree with you. I thought it had so much heart, so much depth. In fact, I was utterly moved by all of Cora’s journey.

I think it’s natural to compare this to Homegoing because of the shared subject matter, though these are radically different books. Homegoing is epic, covering a sweeping amount of history, beginning the story of one character and dropping it for another. The Underground Railroad is more focused. Though we are given some historical context, we’re with Cora mostly. And our “panorama,” if you will, is not African-American history; rather, it’s Slavery. Though this “peculiar institution” is the pretext, we see how far-reaching and capacious slavery has been. I think, though, the focus on Cora allowed for profound emotional impact.

And, if a comparison must be made, I found this prose a tad more spectacular. I loved his writing. In the passage below, Cora peeks out of her hiding place in an attic. Her view—the entirety of her outside world—is a park in North Carolina. Whitehead writes,

“No wonder the whites wandered the park in the growing darkness, Cora thought, her forehead pressed into the wood. They were ghosts themselves, caught between two worlds: the reality of their crimes, and the hereafter denied them for those crimes.”

Lara: It’s not smack talk! I am not disputing his ability to write. It just seemed more matter-of-fact and transactional than emotional. What makes Gyasi’s book more compelling to me is that she could create such an emotional connection through so many characters—a new one each chapter—and could show not just the impacts and effects of slavery but of racism across multiple continents and 300 years. As Gyasi writes,

“Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.”

Jennifer: Oh, yes, it’s an amazing book, undoubtedly. I think, in all honesty, we are inclined to compare them, but it’s not truly good to do so. Why do we compare them? Because we’re so flabbergasted that two works by writers of color were momentous in one year? I don’t know. They’re both excellent.

I think I loved how Whitehead transformed individual experiences into the symbolic. Cora’s plight becomes universal. Whitehead writes,

“Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden.”

This is a Truth we learn by traveling with her. We are also made privy to the depths of this bondage. Consider the words of Landers, one of the popular abolitionists who is on a speaking tour:

“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without the yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick—yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.”

Besides articulate, I think this is lovely.

“The good full moon to sanctuary.”

Lara: It is. It is lovely. And I didn’t dislike it; I just didn’t love it. Since you did, I will share what stood out for me. The two chapters that probably pulled at me the most involved Ethel, a white woman raised in a racist household believing that “a slave was someone who lived in your house, like family but was not family.”

Her father brought Jasmine into their home as a slave girl and immediately forbade Ethel from playing with her. He established lines and boundaries that transcended human decency. We see this when Ethel claims Jasmine to be “[a] savage to call her own.”

It broke my heart that this was an eight-year-old’s view of another child . . . and another reminder that evil often starts in our own homes.

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s amazing. I happen to be doing a ton of reading on race relations right now—partly intentional, partly as a way of coping with the current American political landscape. I’ve listened to John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me on audio, and I’m in the middle of Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Then, we just watched 13th, the documentary. (This is all in pursuit of my honorary—magical realistic—doctorate.) I think, more and more, I’m finding it fascinating and loathsome how the abnormal is normalized, how hatred is rendered as ordinary, even biblical or natural.

Even though Ethel reluctantly helps Cora at one point, I thought the scene in which Ridgeway captures her in North Carolina was especially chilling because of Ethel’s quick turning. She says of her husband:

“I had no idea what he was up to. . . He did it himself! I didn’t know anything!”

One gift of this book is that it renders the seemingly impossible possible: a literal railroad (and it’s told with absolute realism), the unimaginable distortion of humanity—found in a variety of characters. There is Ethel with her “savage.” We see Ridgeway with his over-the-top pursuit of Cora which is all-too-true—how man is monster. And there’s even Ridgeway’s companion—a little black boy named Homer—who wholeheartedly accepts his status with childish enthusiasm and innocence. Consider the distortion of humanity in this passage:

“Each night, with meticulous care, Homer opened his satchel and removed a set of manacles. He locked himself to the driver’s seat, put the key in his pocket, and closed his eyes.”

In other words, Homer—who is Ridgeway’s “ward” till the end—enslaves himself under this messed-up abnormality.

This is what Whitehead accomplishes with his blend of magical realism and realism. We end up questioning what is possible and what is impossible.

Before moving on, I would highlight a passage of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that shows how we all are guilty of distortion. Stowe writes,

“The trader had arrived at that stage of Christian and political perfection which has been recommended by some preachers and politicians of the north, lately, in which he had completely overcome every humane weakness and prejudice. His heart was exactly where yours, sir, and mine could be brought, with proper effort and cultivation. The wild look of anguish and utter despair that the [slave] woman cast on him might have disturbed one less practiced; but he was used to it. He had seen that same look hundreds of times. You can get used to such things, too, my friend . . .”

The normalization of the abnormal.

What else struck you?

Lara: The storyline between Cora and her mother, Mabel, was brilliant storytelling. Cora grows up believing her mother abandoned her on the Randall plantation, as you noted. The resentment and hatred Cora feels is significant. But Mabel’s story is not that simple—if the idea of abandonment can be simple. In fact, Mabel’s story is pure tragedy.

“The first and last things she gave to her daughter were apologies. Cora slept in her stomach, the size of a fist, when Mabel apologized for what she was bringing her into. Cora slept next to her in the loft, ten years later, when Mabel apologized for making her a stray. Cora didn’t hear either one.”

It was the power in Ethel and Mabel’s stories that I wanted illustrated more throughout the book. Had there been that kind of emotion—that creates both visceral reactions and feelings of empathy, I would have loved this book. I liked it—a lot—but I wanted more.

Jennifer: Well, go with me here. That might be part of the point. The silencing, the stillness, the lack of more. Ultimately—and this is true in Homegoing too—these are stories that are cut-off. I see it in Harriet Beecher Stowe too. And it was it the TV mini-series, “Roots.” Again and again, people are separated. Families are destroyed. Narratives are just cut off. And people just had to live with it. They had to live with the unknown. Forever.

One last thing with the train. When they first board—the very first time—the conductor says,

“If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”

The irony is that, on the underground railroad, the view out the window is darkened. All one sees is darkness. Nothing visible.

Is this what this nation is all about?

Next Up!

We are starting the new year with another tough topic, the Holocaust, when we review Affinity Konar’s Mischling. See you in 2017, Snotties!


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