Sunday, January 29, 2017

Underground Railroad (by Colson Whitehead)

I read and loved Underground Airlines last year, but Underground Railroad is the one that has been getting all the accolades and is of course on the Tournament of Books shortlist. I decided as a point of comparison, I would read it.

I hesitate to use the word "entertaining" to describe a book about slavery, or to imply that I need "entertainment" in my books about slavery. But Underground Airlines was entertaining and a bit of a page-turner -- although I don't think it shied away from the implications of its premise. Underground Railroad was more of a painful experience, so more difficult to read. That's not a criticism, by the way -- but a difference in my experience of each. 

Both of them are slightly alternate histories, though Railroad's is more subtle -- the only change is that the railroad is a literal railroad, with tracks and trains and tunnels, that aids Cora on her attempt to run away from plantation life and find freedom in the South.

It wasn't until the end of the book that I actually got why there was a literal railroad, and it was at that point that my mind was totally blown: Cora herself is a metaphor for the bridge between slavery and present-day America, showing that the damage of slavery is clearly alive and well in the black experience today. That is not a huge surprise, thematically, but the final chapter made both Cora and the railroad more overtly metaphorical than at any point earlier in the book.  And of course, then you know how Cora's story turns out, and it's the story of black America. Cora's life becomes all black lives. It is a brilliant conclusion.

However, I would still rank this below some of the other recent books I've read on the same theme, notably The Good Lord Bird, The Sellout, and yes, Underground Airlines.  For me, the brilliant ending was not enough brilliance to carry me through the painful, and somewhat predictable, and somewhat underdeveloped meat of the story. I expect this to go far in the Tournament of Books, but maybe not win. I'll be interested in the commentary, however!

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2 Comments:

Blogger ljhliesl said...

I didn't care for it much as a novel. I liked making the metaphor literal but the book-as-novel seemed ... unfocused? This does not detract from book-as-theme or -message

9:49 AM  
Blogger mo pie said...

I agree with you!

10:46 AM  

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