THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
by Colson Whitehead – Fleet, 2016
adult / fiction
When a book wins as many awards and accolades as this one, it’s not exactly stepping out on a limb to say you really should read it!
But do. And read it when you have your wits about you—there's nothing escapist about The Underground Railroad.
This book will grab your mind and your heart and twist them around each other until they become so deeply entangled that you will stop reading Cora as a character and become a fellow traveller as her desperate search to find and understand freedom unfolds.
There is nothing in my life or my family history to connect me with Cora, a woman in slavery who escapes to a life of continued hardship and peril. My knowledge of the ante-bellum South and the underground railroad is minute—parts of a subject at university, a bit of reading and the odd documentary, all at a safe distance, comprises the whole of it. Yet she feels real and personal to me.
Cora's story is a blend of a re-imagined South in the slave era and a meditation on the meaning and import of freedom.
The barbarity of the ‘peculiar institution’ is sharply contrasted with the humanity, strength and meditative thoughtfulness that Cora refuses to forsake. Both captured my thoughts for days.
I’ve tagged pages all through the book, but have been particularly drawn to this thought:
"Freedom was a community laboring for some-thing lovely and rare."
Freedom as connection, community and labour with purpose is an important alternative to the pervasive idea of freedom as economic prosperity and an unassailed right to individualism. It’s an ideal worthy of work and sacrifice—especially in light of the work and sacrifices already made in its service - and one that bears repeating in the current political climate.
A couple more passages that ring in my ears:
“Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies.”
“In her inventory of loss people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindness.”
“Wait a little longer until we can make preparations for your escape, the shopkeeper said. Then you can have any book you want. But if he didn’t read, he was a slave.”
You could easily spend your time on these pages marvelling at Whitehead’s brilliance—how does a person find words like that to write! But your struggle to understand freedom and your investment in Cora will overtake that fairly quickly. Instead you’ll be thinking your own thoughts and delving into Cora’s—and that's the essence of perfect fiction, don’t you think?