The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

I havered over requesting this book. The description makes it sound so brutal, so scarring, that I wasn’t sure I wanted to subject myself to that right now.

And it is brutal. Colson Whitehead is the AntiMargaretMitchell, point for point canceling out and more than canceling out any cheerful images of happy “darkies” unwilling to leave their comfortable slavery where they’re looked after like kin. Bondage in this Georgia is the worst of all possible worsts, with arbitrary and severe punishments, and slim-to-no chance of escape. In this Georgia there is no solace to be found even in fellow slaves, because every single man and woman in the quarters “would sell out their dearest to escape the bite of the cat-o’-nine-tails” and “Freemen informed on their African brothers and sisters”. I think I found that even more disturbing than the creative tortures and executions the slave owners came up with.

I’m not sure how to put this without inviting attack, but it was … too much. Mark me: I have no doubt that there were plantations and slave owners just like this – far more, I have no doubt, than remotely resembled Tara. I think, though, at a certain point violence piled on violence topped with more violence becomes more like a comic book or The Game of Thrones than a story based on truth. I wouldn’t say I was deadened to it by the end – the day I become deadened to violence of this sort is the day I want to be locked away. I will say I was skimming.

And while the central conceit of the book, the idea that the Underground Railroad was, in fact, a railroad which was underground, was clever and led to some extraordinary moments, it also, for me, did a disservice to the rest of the story. It’s a clever idea – but it’s ridiculous, and a bit frustrating: why on earth would so many spend so much time and money and labor to build something so easily derailed? Which is of course a pun, and also meant literally. Steel and wood for the tracks, all the materials to keep the tunnels open, and all the sweat and probably blood spent in digging mile after mile of tunnel – all to function painfully briefly before being destroyed … it was all so fantastical that it cast the whole book in the same light of fantasy.

I think perhaps if the fantasy element of the Railroad had been pushed even further it might have been more successful; also, the feeling persists that, in terms of the violence described, less is more. In addition to the simple excess is the simple fact that an evil and vicious slave owner makes a bad businessman, since slaves are an expensive investment to be destroying so liberally. I suppose that’s part of the point, in a way; the owner from whom Cora and Cesar escape is not terribly interested in the running of the plantation.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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