Friday, September 16, 2016

Review: "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead

My reason for avoiding any book about slavery in America is the same reason I give for avoiding any book or movie about the Holocaust. I find the subject rather redundant, they make the same points over and over again, and while it is a noble cause to help people never forget such things, I have a hard time finding most modern attempts (after so many successful one) to be that interesting. So I can safely say that I probably would not have read Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad if it wasn’t written by Colson Whitehead. I am a big fan of his and am always curious about what he puts out, fiction of non-fiction. And I’m really glad I picked the book up and I’m really glad I read it, because this book is the most fascinating, sophisticated and complicated book dealing with such subject matter in quite some time. Right off the bat, I can say that this is not an angry book. It doesn’t shy away from what happened, and the evils that seemed to infect a passive American conscience, but Whitehead is more interested in crafting a rather unique alternate version of the Antebellum South, one where there is an actual railroad that is underground, and one where both hunted and hunter are finely crafted individuals, and the proceedings are imbued with more than a little grey. Switching between chapters about certain characters and chapters headed with wherever the story’s action is taking place, the novel deals with Cora, a slave on a plantation in Georgia. She is a strong-willed person, who destroys a fellow slaves doghouse when part of her land is taken away (the payback is horrifying), but she is a torn individual. Her Grandma, Ajarry, lived on the plantation all her life and was complacent and happy. Her mother Mabel, on the other hand, just recently escaped. She is offered a way out by Caesar, and after a brutal beating from the plantation owner’s son, Terrance, she decides to go for it, killing a young boy who tried to catch her in the process. What made this novel so rich was its emphasis on setting, character and action. There might have been political points made, but I was too busy with the book’s intense narrative to find and decipher any. Besides Cora and Caesar, there are the people she meets on her journey to freedom, such as Sam, who she meets in South Carolina, a drunkard with a strong sense of justice and inner turmoil, Martin and Ethel, a couple she meets in North Carolina, who keep her locked up in their attic for safety and eventually sacrifice everything for her. But to me, the most memorable characters were Ridgeway the slave catcher and his group. Having failed to capture Cora’s mother (whose fate we don’t learn until the final fiery pages), he is man with a grudge, wounded pride and a sense of duty. He doesn’t show outward signs of racism toward slaves, evidenced by Homer, a free black man and Ridgeway loyal servant, but he cuts a presence, one that is violent and disturbing, and he is the true villain of the book. Whitehead has created an engaging funhouse reflection of our country’s worst era, one that is propulsive, alive and original. 

Rating: 5/5

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