I clearly haven’t read enough by Colson Whitehead. Several books into what promises to be a rather prolific career in fiction, Whitehead finally came into my crosshairs with his latest book, The Underground Railroad. If you follow me on twitter, you’ll probably know that I actually finished this book on Friday, but it’s taken a solid two days to fully gather my thoughts on the book.
Right now, slave narratives and historical fiction are coming from all ends of the media, from Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation to Underground, they’re everywhere, filing in a gap that was previously unexplored. Save for Alex Haley’s Roots, there was little to be found that truly allowed exploration of the antebellum south. As it stood, the unadulterated truth had yet to be fully told, let alone historical fiction with any degree of imagination.
It’s time. While continuing to depict the realities of slavery without flinching, Whitehead also manages to add a small amount of mysticism to this particular narrative. The story begins with Cora, the youngest in a long line of Georgia slave. Left alone at 9 years old after her mother’s escape she’s a bit strange, and the other slaves give her a wide berth. As dismal life on the plantation gets increasing worse, she’s approached by another slave who is conspiring to escape. Caesar is relatively new to the farm, a man from Virginia who was incorrectly promised freedom by his elderly master. The promise wasn’t carried out, resulting in his family being divided and sold to different families.
With the abilities to read and write, Caesar imagines more for his future and enlists Cora to accompany him on his journey. He guides Cora to his contact for the Underground Railroad, which they ride– yes, ride– out of Georgia. A literal underground railroad is undoubtedly Whitehead’s greatest deviance from the history, allowing him to show much more of the United States than he would have had his characters been entirely on foot. Described once as “one single car, a dilapidated boxcar missing numerous planks in its walls,” it secrets escapees from state to state, with stations oftentimes under the homes of the most committed abolitionists.
Take North Carolina, which is a “negro-free state” in Whitehead’s iteration of history. Slaveowners have instead rerouted immigrants from Ireland and other European countries to be their migrant labor, allowing them to ban enslaved Africans from the state. The government is central to this plot, buying the black slaves from the slaveowners and selling them to out-of-state plantations. I’ll stop before giving any more spoilers, but things like this (rooted in real legislation, such as The Illinois Black Code of 1853) allow Whitehead to put his own spin on historical fiction.
This is the kind of book that you have to sit down and analyze afterward, similar (but to a lesser degree) than with books like Song of Solomon, which pile dynamic on top of dynamic in a single book. To spend more time discussing this book would allow moments to unpack the relationship between defiant slaves and their submissive brothers, or between overtly racist white citizens and subversively racist part-time abolitionist counterparts. It would allow a moment to appreciate the sociopathy of slave punishments and how it contributes to the idea that contemporary African Americans feel less pain than others.
I’ll reread this book when it is finally released this fall. At times, it was somewhat jumbled, and the ending was a little dissatisfying to me, but the book that remains is still fantastic. An epic journey unlike any I’ve read recently, it successfully presents the pre-civil war era through a series matter of fact narrators which provide a holistic understanding of the plot at any given time. Read this if you’re interested in a creative take on an enslaved African’s odyssey toward freedom. It whet my appetite for lengthy slave narratives and historiographies, so stay tuned– there may be more coming.
I honestly can’t get enough of slave narratives historical fiction in the pre-civil war era. If I don’t read them, I feel left out of historical fiction entirely. What eras do y’all enjoy reading about? Also, let me know if you’ve read anything else by Colson Whitehead, because I’m thinking he’s worth a second, third, and maybe even a fourth look.
Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.