Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The small Ohio town where I grew up was a stop on the Underground Railroad. One of my neighbors lived in a house supposedly old enough to have been part of the actual network, and I remember climbing into a rocky little space that – if it had been there 120 years before – might have been where some slaves hid for a time.

I think of that space and it gives me the illusion of a connection to that overwhelming experience, but I know it’s only an imagined connection. The slaves who fled the unspeakable horrors of the plantations endured things far worse than what the metaphor of “underground railroad” suggests, but that’s what we call it.

The central power of this novel is that it takes that metaphor and makes it real. It’s no longer just a way of describing people who came together desperately to fight slavery; it’s an actual railroad, a set of tunnels dug deeply and impossibly by hands we never see.

That vision alone makes this one striking and memorable. When Cora first gets away from the plantation and finds her way to a station, it feels like the end of a terrible nightmare. She’s saved by the anonymous and staggering work of others. It promises her a way north, and it obligates her to do her part for others who come after. It’s all there, dug in stone and soil.

But this novel is much more than just a metaphor made real, more even than an inspired marriage of the runaway slave narrative and the magic realism method. It’s also about the limits of the collective work of salvation. The bitter truth is that slavery so deeply marks its victims (and, in ways less deserving of sympathy, its victimizers) that there is no real escape. In the closing pages, [SPOILER] when Cora limps down a dismal track along a discovered line of the railroad, the grand promise of the original vision is gone. She’s survived and escaped, but so many others have not.

We get a glimpse in Indiana of what a genuine post-slave community might look like, but the world is too intolerant, too violent to let it stand.

We have, in other words, metaphors to name an experience larger than any one of us, but beneath them lies a suffering that challenges everyone telling story to make fresh. Whitehead does that, and Cora’s dreams have real and rare power in the face of the horrors she has endured. In his imaginative manner, he does it better than Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany (to name two skilled writers who’ve used fantasy or science fiction to probe the experience of slavery). He does it so well, in fact, that I thought at times I was reading the even better still A Mercy by Toni Morrison.

The wonder that comes with the vision of the railroad makes fresh what it meant to resist slavery and its supporters. The collapse of so much of that wonder makes the awfulness of that history come down with new weight as well.

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