February 11th, 2017
The Short Take:
This book is fantastic. But don’t take my word for it, take the word of every publication that included it in their top ten list for 2016, or the judges who made it a National Book Award winner. It documents the all-to-real horrors of slavery in America, using the imaginative conceit of a slave runaway traveling on a literal railroad that runs under the ground.
This masterful novel follows the harrowing journey of Cora, a slave on the run from a Georgia cotton plantation. Chapters are named for the different states in which she finds herself, each of which showcases a different aspect of this country’s disregard for the humanity of its black citizens, from the brutality of slavery to purposely infecting individuals with syphilis.
While the subterranean trains themselves are fantasy, the reality of the situations Cora finds herself in is anything but. Whitehead takes genuine aspects of American racism– slavery, paternalism, white separatist movements, racial hysteria, etc. — and looks at them unflinchingly. Think of Gulliver’s Travels and you’ve got the basic idea.
It’s tough and Whitehead breaks your heart repeatedly, but Cora has such an indomitable spirit that you will her through each new disaster.
There are many phrases and observations that will stay with you, reminding you of the steep price some paid to provide homes and prosperity for others. “Stolen bodies working stolen lands,” said it most succinctly, but other passages — and Cora — tell it much more eloquently.
A Little Plot:
Another slave asks Cora to run away with him He says she will bring him luck as her mother was the only one to ever successfully escape, abandoning a young Cora. She agrees and they begin their journey to an underground railroad station. And, hopefully, to freedom. However, in addition to the usual deadly dangers, a notorious slave catcher, Ridgeway, is determined to find her.