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The Underground RailroadMagical Realism and a Gut-Wrenching Journey Through African American History

Author: Colson Whitehead

As our book club’s May choice, we talked about the arching complexity of magical realism intermixed with history overlaid by a conversation on racial prejudice. In other words, we picked the hot-off-the-presses Pulitzer Prize winning The Underground Railroad, a book in which the historic agency by which slaves were smuggled out of the confederacy to freedom is an actual, physical subterranean structure that links decades of history along an odyssey like journey.

It all begins with Cora, a slave who lives in “The Hob” on a Georgian cotton plantation. Even for a slave in this especially brutal plantation, Cora is particularly unlucky and outcast. Left by an infamous mother who ran away, leaving an infant Cora to suffer, the little girl lives with the outcasts – those too old, too crazy, or too sick, to last long. A walking talisman of bad-luck, Cora has something else that keeps the other slaves afraid: an instinct for survival and a sharp mind that sees and understands everything – a mind unafraid to rebel. As she grows into adulthood, the mixture of bitterness and the desire to fight coalesces into a fierce young woman who despite the beatings and the rapes can’t quite be destroyed by anyone or anything.

Caesar, a new slave from Virginia, sees the anger and the desire in Cora and the two hatch a daring plan to run away and thus begins their long journey underground: one which is filled with desolation, betrayal, and a smooth converging of African American history into a flip-book fast dystopia of violence, lies, and pulsing, rending dehumanization. Cora has felt both the harshness of the lash and the subtle, destroying cruelty of a patronizing smile from self-perceived “do-gooders” and along the way it’s her clear, clinical voice, that distills the hate and disappointment into a palpable, epic mixture.

In the meantime, a slave catcher named Rideway with an axe-to-grind, a long-ago vendetta against “the one who got away” (aka Cora’s mother) is hot on the track, intent to do whatever it takes to bring Cora back in chains – and watch her tortured and killed as an example to the others. Ridgeway himself narrates some of the sequences and it is within his casual cruelty, his ability to watch and ponder, even his circumspect way of appreciating Cora’s ingenuity and grit, that the horror of dehumanization is fully encapsulated, the sterility of culturally bred coldness and the fractured morals of a world so involved with money and with revenge that life, black or white, is ultimately considered a trivial thing. Perhaps most impacting of all during our sojourns alongside Ridgeway is his own slave boy who despite his youth and his race is perhaps the most horrific example of self-hatred. His tormenting of Cora and other slaves and his encapsulation with the white-man’s plans and murders shows the brutality and brainwashing of a turncoat – something so inconceivable that it evokes both insanity and the self-focused desperation of surviving in a world not meant for you.

While the topics of the novel are entangled in emotion and a backwash of historical guilt ebbing up to present day racism (a massive and well executed scope), the clinical tone of Cora and her fellow narrators (namely, Ridgeway) unveils the coldness of the violence and hate, the sheer mundane mechanics of it, in truest form: monstrous, unprovoked, and inherently immersed in daily life. The clinical narration, however, also manages to distance the reader. Only when Cora is well and truly hating are readers able to feel and enter into the epic with her. Otherwise, her own emotional destruction, necessary for survival and poignancy, makes the author’s point hit home more soundly, but leaves us wanting a human connection in the midst of so much sadness. Whitehead won’t give us that consolation, and once again, this works in making the novel impactful, in highlighting that Cora is unable to trust and open up to anyone, even fellow slaves and runaways. Yet, I was left a bit wistful. Cora is so singed, so destroyed, that she keeps a barrier between herself and the reader and so we watch tragedy and cry for a general evil all the while longing to feel a personal hatred alongside Cora in those few bright moments where she opens up and shows the only emotion that could possibly result from her life.

Each stop along the railroad is a mini-world and takes the liberty of collecting a long history and giving it to us in slices. There’s the North Carolina stop which seems like a paradise but is soon revealed to be a ploy, an insidious plot of supposed helpers who are just as adamant to destroy and use the African race as are the slave holders and plantations.

Then there’s the town who revels in the glory of execution, the swatch of strung up bodies – those who are born black and those who help them, that gives us a more out-and-out depiction of what prejudice, in its final form, begets. Each stop is an episode of mixed history and we examine the obviously evil and the not so obviously prejudiced. We see prejudice between equally downtrodden races and even hatred within the same race, showing the domino effect of the damage people have done to each other throughout history and continue to do.

And all along the line, the physical potency of this escape structure being real, the confinement of the buried tunnel where, symbolically, only freedom and hope can be found, cements the links between both history and Cora’s shattering journey. In the end, it’s revealed that for Cora, the line keeps on going and we intuitively know that more stops are along the way, each with their own disappointments and lies, each another failure in a world where Cora can ultimately find no peace and no hope. Yet, she keeps going toward the symbolic light and it’s the fighting spirit and the not giving up, more than the actual character and her story, that reverberate as a call to action and message that history changes slowly, but can ultimately be changed by the long line of those who although hopeless in their own lifetimes, fought on anyway. It is impactful, not from a personal character-related-to-reader standpoint, but in the abstract manner of a powerful sermon which could be made even more meaningful if we just could have been in Cora’s head more often, seen her sacrifice as more than symbol.

–        Frances Carden

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The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize Winner) (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah’s Book Club): A Novel (Hardcover)


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Frances Carden

Frances Carden

Frances has a Masters in Fiction Writing from Johns Hopkins and works as a technical writer during the day, where she attempts to make software exciting.
Frances Carden

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