This book was horribly sad, it tore my heart open repeatedly. I don't usually read books like this but it was chosen for a book club I wanted to attend. I couldn't even get through the first page without crying. I had to put it down to rest my heart. I never made it to that book club meeting.
I know it is fiction and one major detail was changed but that didn't take away from the story. I know that the majority of the book was close enough to the real thing and the terror that people endured was just as real. I have read about the horrible things that humans did to other humans because of the color of their skin and it is heart-rending. I wish it all could be considered fiction but the sad truth is that this horrible story was a reality for too many souls. There is language that I like to avoid but in this book, it is part of the reality.
True confession: when I was a little kid, and heard about something called the "underground railroad," taking slaves to freedom, I thought it was a real railroad. Underground. Hardly surprising, when I lived in a city where a (largely) underground railroad connected the far-flung corners of four of the city's five boroughs. So, in a childlike way, I was a little disappointed when I learned that the "railroad" part was a metaphor. In a move that readers will either love or hate, Colson Whitehead reverses the trajectory of that metaphor, and equips his story of one woman's escape from the horrors of slavery in the deepest South with a genuine underground railroad, complete with stations and stationmasters, platforms, cabooses and engineers. The question you have to ask, before you decide whether you love it or hate it, is why he does this, and what (if anything) it adds to a story you may think you are familiar with from many, many re-tellings.
Personally, I think the new metaphor works brilliantly, on several levels. The railroad conceit keeps the focus on Cora, rather than turning it into the story of the Good People who are rescuing her. This is not a history of the Underground Railroad, and Whitehead's re-engineering of the metaphor doesn't change anything, or diminish the courage of those who were involved, or the odds against them. But historically, the role of the runaway slaves in stories of the Underground Railroad could turn into non-speaking parts: they are silent sufferers whose role is to be rescued. Whitehead uses the railroad to ensure that doesn't happen to Cora, and at the same time makes the white participants both more complicated and more human.
In addition, like the transporter on "Star Trek," the metaphor of the railroad eliminates the need for a lot of narrative filler ("... and then she hid under a blanket/in a hayloft/in an attic ...â) and allows Whitehead to move Cora along quite briskly, taking her from one fictionalized version of slave-owning America to another.
Because that's what the story is really about: as she embarks on her journey, Cora is told, âLook outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of Americaâ (a line Whitehead has her repeat, at least twice, in case you didn't get it the first time). Whitehead presents us with three fictionalized versions (four, including the nightmare that is the Georgia plantation that Cora escapes from) of the history of race relations in America. âSouth Carolina,â where the plantation system has been replaced by a form of slavery-by-stealth: a lifetime of debt, low-wage servitude and eugenics, all presented as if someone were doing the runaways a big favor. âNorth Carolina,â where it has been made it a crime, punishable by death, to be black, and the slave population has been replaced with indentured servants enlisted from desperate hordes of European immigrants. And Indiana, a seeming idyll of abolitionist sentiment and color-blind good will to all, which is (Spoiler? Or perhaps you can see this coming?) too good to last.
The âAmericaâ that Cora see as she rides the rails is a clever mash-up of real history (the Tuskegee experiment, in which subjects offered free health care were infected with syphilis; programs to ârepatriateâ freed slaves to Africa; the shameful legacy of Reconstruction, which left ex-slaves so in debt to their former masters that they might has well still be enslaved) and Whitehead uses the âwhat ifâ to excellent purpose. His novel becomes much more than just an escape adventure, but a powerful journey through the role of race in American history.
And beautifully written. (I was not surprised by this, as Whitehead's âZone Oneâ is one of the best zombie novels I have read.) The voice of Cora, and the account of what she goes through, who she meets, and what she sees, is one you won't get out of your head for a long, long time.