Saturday, December 31, 2016
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is abandoned by her mother on a Georgia cotton plantation where she has to survive on her own. When the owner dies and the twin son takes over the plantation, he tortures, beats, and uses the slaves for his own degenerate entertainment and lusts. Violence and fear reign, instilling terror in the slaves to deter escapes and keep them oppressed. But Cora can't be subdued. Her early survival training course from when her mom took off has created a strong woman. When another slave approaches Cora about escaping, she puts him off until she feels her life is threatened. The two seek out the underground railroad and the reader discovers it is a real railroad that is literally dug underground. I wondered if the novel was going to be a steampunk fantasy at that point, but the author doesn't head in that direction, instead the railroad is a symbol of blacks fighting for freedoms and their vital contributions to building this country into what it is today.
The next alternate historical account is regarding doctors who are practicing eugenics on unsuspecting black women sterilizing them. When some find out what has happened, they go insane. Irony abounds as Cora gets a job working for a living museum where the only live people or actors are the three black women. They live out history as it is falsely told in some of the scenes. Colson Whitehead is reminding readers with his speculations that an alternate history is relevant today. The reader has to make his or her own connections. As Cora says, the U.S. has "stolen bodies working stolen land." He pounds home the message that the U.S. is not one group of peoples' land. Manifest Destiny was a way for white people to conquer and oppress those in the way. It was not justified. The author points to the Trail of Tears and creates his own horrific Freedom Trail where the bodies of blacks are hung from trees mutilated and tortured mile-after-mile.
The strength of Whitehead's novel is how he shows different versions of the past and how literary or historical narration influences the authenticity of history. When Cora reflects on the Bible and the Hebrew slaves she comments how people got things wrong by "accident" and "on purpose." She's watching a minstrel show as she questions history. The white men dressed up as blacks are mocking her culture and ancestry, trying to change the facts. They lie to create a truth that justifies their inhumane actions. The narration is bent to fit the group that is dominant in the society. To acknowledge blacks are human beings that helped build the country is a narration that will not happen in Cora's lifetime. Later when the blacks form a community or safe-haven in which education, freedom, food, and politics flourish, Cora is forced to see that it is a delusion as it is destroyed by threatened white people in town.
The klunky transitions between chapters were jarring and the third person narration pulled me even more out of the storyline. The bounty hunter was interesting but when he isn't killed in one section of the book it was obvious that he'd show up again. Here the plot is forced and lost steam for me. While I see why many liked the uniqueness through the author's use of speculative fiction, the weak character development left me wanting more.