Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The underground railroad was an incredible attempt in our nation's history to help those, who were oppressed and subjugated to horrendous persecution, by providing a secret route of safe homes to freedom. It has been a fascinating subject to me since my elementary school days and then to my college years when historic markers seemed to abound with the sites associated with abolition of slavery. It was even rumored that the Rocky Spring Church,  in which graveyard Sarah Wilson was buried, was a station on the railroad.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and Colson Whitehead has taken the The Underground Railroad to a new dimension. With homage paid to Gulliver's Travels and 100 Years of Solitude, Whitehead creates a system of tracks, trains, and tunnels that transport slaves to freedom. The reader must suspend the historical notion for the magic realism that details the coming and going of locomotives and trains that can be accessed through trap doors.

Cora lives on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Her mother was a runaway slave and abandoned her when she was young. As a witness to and victim of the owner's brutality, she agrees to an escape plan with Caesar, a young man who gains her trust. The ensuing journey north takes her to diverse stations and states. From a surrealistic environment of "freedom" in South Carolina to hiding in an attic, ala Anne Frank, in North Carolina, the reader routes for her to make it to the north and real freedom. All the while she is chased by the wicked slave catcher, Ridgeway whose intensity in pursuit rivals that of Javret from Les Miserables.

Throughout the novel Whitehead moves beyond the narrative to the unstated comparison of man's journey for freedom and the savage cruelty experienced on the way- the Nazis and the police brutality that the world has witnessed in the last years.  It is a shocking and complacency shaking work that begs to be reread for the sheer poetry of Whitehead's words. On 24 October 2016, it was, indeed, a thrill to hear Colson Whitehead read from and discuss this book and his inspiration for writing it.