20 Books of Summer 2019: Book 2
I was blown away by Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which took the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. I went to Goodreads to log my five-star rating and was surprised to find it sitting at a solid four. It appears that the biggest factor in whether people like this book is their response to Whitehead’s treatment of the Underground Railroad as a physical railroad with trains.
The Underground Railroad follows Cora’s escape north from a brutal plantation as she’s tracked by a slave catcher, Ridgeway. Because travel is swift and occurs by train between chapters, the focus of the book isn’t Cora’s flight, but her experience in different cities. One criticism by people who dislike this book is that a physical train undercuts the sacrifice and ingenuity of real people who smuggled slaves to freedom. When Cora steps on a train in South Carolina and pops up in North Carolina, it doesn’t match history, but this novel doesn’t claim to be historically accurate. There is no explicit time-travel and the setting remains in the 19th century, but Cora witnesses a range of dehumanizing treatments that reference the 1960s and present day. Though Cora’s travel is occasionally fast, it’s never easy or without loss. There are narrow escapes and nighttime chases; the consequences of her capture are made horrifyingly clear at regular intervals.
So the question is: Do you need your fiction to be historically accurate? From other reviews, there’s concern that this book spreads the misunderstanding that the Underground Railroad ran on train tracks, but since when is fiction graded on its ability to sub as a textbook? This complaint hardly seems fair when Whitehead is so clear that his trains never existed:
The train pulled into the. . .station. It was the most splendid locomotive yet, its shiny red paint returning the light even through the shroud of soot. The engineer was a jolly character with a booming voice, opening the door to the passenger car with no little ceremony. . . . There were seats enough for thirty, lavish and soft, and brass fixtures gleamed where the candlelight fell. The smell of fresh varnish made her feel like the inaugural passenger of a magical, maiden voyage. (262)
This kind of tech / magical realism reminds me of his elevators in The Intuitionist (another great book).
With the train to free up page space, Whitehead spends his time shaping each city that Cora visits. Historical anachronisms abound because this book isn’t about a particular injustice at a particular time. Cora witnesses lynchings, unethical medical experiments that clearly reference the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and race laws from the Jim Crow era. Maybe it’s confusing to portray the Underground Railroad with rails, but a more damaging (and persistent) misconception is the idea that racism in America was/is limited to the old South. This book doesn’t portray the South as a brutal plantation and the North as an abolitionist-filled haven—it attempts to show an entire nation, comprised of good and bad people with a shared and difficult history.
One weakness of the book, though, is that it shows little of Cora’s internal life. There are a few moments that seem like something from a movie script—”cinematic” is often a compliment in my reviews, but here I mean it to say that some things seem to happen at a distance. There is so little interaction between Cora and the secondary characters that while you can imagine their actions, you don’t have much sense of their voices. Between each long chapter is a short one to further illuminate a side character. Since Cora travels alone, these characters are fleshed out after they’ve left the story. I’m not sure how I feel about character development via flashback, but it’s hard not to see it as emotionally manipulative. I don’t like moments when I’m more aware of the writer than the characters.
Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) I am so impressed by this twist on the Underground Railroad. It sounds wrong to say that I appreciate a new twist on history because history is important for its own sake, but the anachronisms are well-used because the brutality that Cora witnesses and experiences isn’t something that shut off like faucet on a particular date. This is a historical novel that isn’t stuck in history.
Up next: March by Geraldine Brooks