Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.


Gulliver’s Travels

Gulliver's TravelsJonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels is as excellent a satire today as when it was published in 1726. Lemuel Gulliver is a surgeon with the soul of an explorer. Gulliver’s Travels purports to be the tale of his voyages, including descriptions of the strange peoples and sites he encounters. Most readers are familiar with his iconic adventures in Lilliput, a land populated by beings six inches tall, where Gulliver towers over the inhabitants like a giant. Gulliver is initially mistrusted and even held captive in Lilliput until he enters into the service of the king. Over time, Gulliver learns that Lilliput is at war with neighboring country Blefuscu over which end of the egg it is most proper to break—the little or the big. When Gulliver refuses to help Lilliput fight her enemy Blefuscu, he is charged with treason. He manages to escape and is rescued by a ship and returns home.

It’s not long before he’s at sea again and winds up in the land of Brobdingnag, a land populated by giants. Gulliver now finds himself in a land where he is of Lilliputian size in comparison to the inhabitants. He is cared for by a Brobdingnagian girl and exhibited as a curiosity. This time, his leave-taking is accidental as an eagle snatches the traveling box in which he’s being carried and drops it into the sea, where he is once again rescued.

On his third voyage, Gulliver visits several more interesting countries, including Japan, which I found curious as it’s the only “real” country described in the novel. The flying island of Laputa, with its focus on mathematics and music, was really interesting to me, especially in light of their impracticality. It reminded me a little bit of Donald in Mathmagic Land. You remember seeing it in school?

The final voyage, which Gulliver undertakes after swearing off exploring for good, takes Gulliver to the land of the Houyhnhnms, who are horse-like creatures. Gulliver comes to admire the Houyhnhnms more than people. The people he encounters in the land are course, uncivilized Yahoos. In this final voyage, Gulliver learns to appreciate the Houyhnhnms over his own kind, which he afterward refers to as Yahoos.

I think Lemuel Gulliver is a huge jerk. He abandons his family. His wife was pregnant when he left on his last voyage. When he returns, he rejects his family and prefers to spend time with a pair of horses he has procured. He passes judgment on the people he encounters. I found the Houyhnhnms to be haughty and proud and certainly couldn’t understand Gulliver’s adoration of them. Perhaps it is Swift’s way of asking the reader to think about why they look up to anyone. As usual, Swift’s satire is razor-sharp. I admit some of the book surprised me. Gulliver talks quite a lot about his bodily functions, and I admit I didn’t expect that out of a book written during that time, but I suppose it makes sense given that this is not the prim Victorian period. The book had some enjoyable moments. I liked the parts set in Brobdingnag and Laputa the best. I’m glad I read the book despite finding its protagonist to be hard to sympathize with, but I think a book about Gulliver’s wife would have been interesting, too. I would have kicked his sorry tail out the door, and good riddance. I think one of the chief ironies of the book is that Gulliver criticizes so many of the societies, ultimately idolizing the Houyhnhnms (undeservedly, in my opinion) and despising his own race, without seeing that he is one of the least likable, least worthy, and most fallible of them all. Ultimately, I just like to read about protagonists I can care about more. I found myself hoping Gulliver would suffer harm. A good frying pan over his head and kick in the ass administered by his wife when he showed up after the Houyhnhnms kicked him out would have redeemed the book nicely for me.

I read this novel via DailyLit.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Well Read. tee-shirt on sale at the Decatur Book Festival, September 2009

Reading Update: July 1, 2010

Well Read. tee-shirt on sale at the Decatur Book Festival, September 2009I am in the midst of reading three books at the moment: Gulliver’s Travels via DailyLit, The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox (paperback), and The Three Weissmanns of Westport (Kindle).

As of today, I have read 80 of 115 sections via email of Gulliver’s Travels. My verdict so far: I am ready to be finished with it. My favorite part has been Gulliver’s stay in Brobdingnag, which might change before I finish the book. As I read, I find myself annoyed with Gulliver for repeatedly abandoning his family on what look like frivolous voyages to me. If I were his wife, I’d have divorced him.

The Meaning of Night is taking me some time to get into. I’m currently on p. 244 out of about 700. I am being patient because my husband says it’s really good, but it hasn’t grabbed my interest yet. My husband keeps saying it will, and he rarely gushes about books. I don’t think I can give the book too much longer or I will have given it too much for too little return. It does have a good atmosphere, and the author captures Victorian England well.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport is indeed Sense and Sensibility set in modern Westport, CT and New York. I like it so far. It’s full of modern pop culture references (Gawker, Oprah, subtle shades of James Frey). I’m not sure how well it will stand the test of time as a result. I think the author does more telling rather than showing, but I’m entertained and intrigued enough to finish. I’m 41% finished with it. I’m reading it for the Everything Austen Challenge.

What are you reading? What do you think of it?