The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
When your spouse works for a church denomination, there’s a good chance that his boss’s boss ends up in your book club. And that’s what happened with L. She had our February pick, and I decided not to waste any time when she announced that we’d be reading The Underground Railroad in February. I only had to wait a few days for my hold to come in, and here we are! The Chancellor is finishing it right now, so you’ll have to see his review, but already, I think we’re going to have a book club disagreement on it.
Cora is a slave on a plantation. When she is finally convinced to run away from the plantation where her mother and grandmother grew up, she discovers that there is an *actual* railroad, in a bit of revisionist history from Whitehead. She finds herself in South Carolina, North Carolina, and then Indiana, as she tries to make a life for herself, ahead of the slave catcher who is hunting her down.
I’m going to be honest: I just don’t get the hype. If you’ve ever read any nonfiction slave narrative (Twelve Years a Slave or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl come to mind) or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, then you will already have read this book. To be fair, Whitehead is a great writer, and he tells a compelling story. I appreciate that he was unsparing in his descriptions of slavery, but the metaphor of the Underground Railroad coming to life just didn’t pay off, frankly. It didn’t ask any big questions or do anything new.
Also, it just felt like misery porn for guilty white people in the end. Yes, slavery was and is AWFUL. No, slaves did not live happy lives, and yes, their freedom came at the price of great suffering. But I feel like continually awarding praise to books about slavery (AHEM, Academy Voters and the Twelve Years a Slave film) just reinforces a narrative about suffering that perpetuates more stereotyping. On the one hand, we don’t want to forget the awfulness of slavery. On the other, let’s diversify the narrative and make it broader and more expansive. I wish Whitehead would have done this.