Monday, December 31, 2018

Heard: "Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead

Heard: Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, 2016, download from Wisconsin Digital Library. Finished this in 2016 so I am backdating the entry from January, 2019 creation.

Short: Slave woman is about 18-years-old when she flees a Georgia plantation and keeps travelling state-to-state to escape capture and a vengeful slave hunter.

Long and with spoilers: This was pretty good. The horrific violence and crime were a shock. Protagonist Cora tells most of the story with a few detours to other characters. Her own mother ran away when Cora was about 8-years-old and there has been no word about her mother since. Cora has no other family on her large plantation and has survived rape, violently protected her own small garden, and mostly escaped the abuse of the dirt-bag brothers who own the plantation.

The large and active plantation means the owners regularly buy and sell people. A newcomer to the plantation is Caesar. Caesar was born to a kind owner who let her slaves grow as people - as much as possible under slavery that is. When Caesar's owner died she left no will, the executor sold all her property, and Caesar went from a easier life South to Georgia. Caesar makes friends with Cora and gets them to flee.

On Sundays Caesar sells things at a nearby local town. He meets a member of the Underground Railroad there and makes a plan. He and Cora head off through the swamp. This is no casual event, attempting an escape means death.

Anyhoo. Bad things happen. Cora and Caesar make it to South Carolina which is a much kinder slave state. Cora escapes recapture and ends up in highly dangerous North Carolin. Another escape takes her to Indiana. Another escape has her on a wagon train West.

Whitehead was awarded a Pulitzer and National Book Award for this novel and the book is pretty decent. He tells a compelling story and Cora's travails and sufferings frequently enraged and shocked me. Cora is a strong person but suffers the doubts and personal worries of everyone. Her mother disappeared into the swamp and Cora had to live alone on a plantation that was sometimes dog-eat-dog. She had no love after her mother left - and, we learn, died in the swamp from a snake bite.

Caesar was raised by a family that was allowed to have self dignity. Unlike Cora who never left the plantation or the immediate area Caesar had witnessed better conditions and knew that life could be better.

Cora is a loner by nature and lack of nurture. The two of them never become romantically involved. Cora is smart. She understands people and deciphers their behavior. Her survival senses are sharp but she is also human and makes mistakes.

At the basics this is an adventure story. A chase story. Cora and Caesar are traveling through enemy territory with a infamous slave hunter on their tracks. Within this Whitehead weaves all sorts of U.S. history with a tie lapse of U.S. slave history as Cora travels from state to state. I finished the book a while ago and forgot many things but do recall these:

South Carolina: forced sterilization and syphilis experimentation on unknowing people.
North Carolina: lunching, sunset towns, and Jim Crow laws.
Indiana: free but at risk of murder at the hands of unhappy white neighbors. Resulting massacres like Rosewood and Tulsa. Two characters representative of Du Bois and Booker T Washington.
Wagons West: the Great Migration from the South. I'm blanking on another term for that migration. Let me check... nuts, I cannot find it. Maybe I'm thinking of a book title about people moving to Chicago and Detroit and other industrial cities.

I greatly appreciate that I am not the only person who, as a child, took the phrase Underground Railroad literally. Whitehead has an actual subterranean railroad system. If you have my admiration if you can spell subterranean without spell check.

1. Will this big time award winner have a lasting impact on me where I will periodically think back on the story and be surprised about how much I recall? Hell if I know. I've read some other award winners that were kinda 'meh' when I read them but their plots and characters would pop into my mind.
2. What the fuck?! How can any one, at any time, have defended and excused slavery?
3.  I'm a middle aged white guy and slavery is always an abstract. I don't have a family history with relatives who suffered under the system. There is nothing personal in the history for me. Sure, I know the history. But, reading a well written novel like this is incredibly angering. Whitehead draws up some sharp characters we get to like and some villains that are villainous.
4. What's more, the villains are not cartoons - something a character actually references when comparing a slave owner to a caricature used by anti-slave literature. The slave owners and chasers are solid in their beliefs that black people are lesser and should be slave.
5. I want to spell Colson with a 'U' as Coulson.

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