The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Pulitzer Prize winner 2017

I thought it was appropriate that in Black History Month we discuss this book. This book is a Pulitzer Prize winner and tells the story of Cora, a runaway slave from Georgia as she flees from the brutality of a Georgia plantation in a desperate bid for freedom. Along the way she uses an underground railroad system. This system is a figment of the author’s imagination. Although there were people who helped slaves flee, there was no actual subterranean system of railroads, but it provided a useful literary device for Colson Whitehead. The network of people who helped slaves flee was always referred to as ‘The Underground Railroad’. Whitehead just took it a step further and asked what would it look like if it was an actual rail network? How would it work?

It does intrigue me that the last author we discussed, Jeanine Cummins, encountered so much hostility for writing ‘American Dirt’ because she was not a Mexican and was white and privileged. Whitehead’s only connection with slavery is the colour of his skin. He lives in Manhattan, went to private school, had a summer house in the Hamptons growing up and attended Harvard. He is certainly part of the privileged elite. I don’t know, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps just the colour of his skin qualifies him to write about the horror of slavery. Or perhaps as I said with Cummins, the colour of a person’s skin is not as important as the message they impart, or the stories they tell, or how they tell them.

The story does sometimes jump between timelines and places and it is not always linear, but I found it honest and candid in it is depiction of the brutality of slavery. It is gritty realism. As Whitehead said, ‘He wanted to make a psychologically credible plantation and that means thinking about people who have been traumatised, brutalised and dehumanised their whole lives. Its not going to be the pop culture plantation where there’s one Uncle Tom and everyone is just really helpful to each other. Everyone is going to be fighting for the one extra bite of food in the morning. Fighting for the small piece of property.’ (Interview with Colson Whitehead by Emma Brockes The Guardian 7 July 2017).

To be credible he trawled through oral history archives, in particular the 2,300 first person accounts of slavery collected by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930’s.  However, as Alex Preston writes in his review in The Guardian, ‘This is a book that wears its research lightly, but the suitably antique prose and detailed descriptions combine to create a world that is entirely convincing’ (The Guardian Alex Preston The Underground Railroad  9 October 2016).

The book is tense and suspenseful. Whitehead was asked whether he was ‘squeamish about deploying the customary tricks of the novelist when the subject matter is so traumatic.’ He replied ‘I was aware of the conventions of a suspenseful book and of withholding information, red herrings and distracting the reader. And I think the plot like humour, or what kind of narrator you have is just a tool you use for the right story at the right time. ‘(Interview with Colson Whitehead Emma Brockes supra).

Here again I have problems with the double standards. How Whiteheads book won a Pulitzer Prize despite its fictionalisation of elements of slavery for the purpose of narrative development and Cummins’ book ‘American Dirt’ was lambastestised for doing just that. As stated in the New York Times review ‘We begin to notice as readers slight departures from historical fact, places where The Underground Railroad becomes something much more interesting than just a historical novel. It doesn’t merely tell us about what happened, it also tells us what might have happened. Whitehead’s imagination unconstrained by stubborn facts takes the novel to new places in the narrative of slavery’.  (Is Colson Whitehead’s latest, The Underground Railroad more than a metaphor. Juan Gabriel Vasquez The New York Times 5 August 2016).

As much as I would love to, I don’t think I would recommend this book, not just because of my problems with American Dirt. I think there are better books about slavery. The writing to me just doesn’t make the grade.

So what did book club think?

Interestingly I wasn’t alone in my dislike of the book. Only Anne-Marie and Jennie liked it. Jan, Caroline and Madeleine hated it, with Caroline and Madeleine going so far as to say they struggled to read it.

Madeleine said it was not the  subject matter that bothered her, but it was like doing a complicated crossword. It wasn’t linear and new characters who you knew nothing about kept emerging. It was like the author was trying to trick you. She would go back and read parts of the book again to see if she had missed that character, but she hadn’t. Jennie suggested that the author was trying to emulate the confusion of the escape. Madeleine didn’t buy that – she felt she was being played with.  Jo also felt that it mirrored the real characters in the Underground Railroad – you didn’t know who they were. Madeleine also felt he was the sort of writer who would use ten words when one would do.

Others felt the character of Cora was poorly developed. Caroline said it was if she was just a vehicle to tell a story. Madeleine agreed and felt that she was like a stick that things were glued to. She didn’t have any real independence. Jo asked if that was the point. Cora didn’t know her own history herself.

A lot of people at book club felt, like I did, that the use of a real railroad was contrived. Jan said she liked her historical fiction to be historically accurate. She also said that although Whitehead had read the oral histories of Federal Writers project, he had a tendency to try and ‘jam everything in’ and that bothered her.

Caroline said that there were many other books on slavery which were better written. Ones she mentioned include The Kitchen House (Kathleen Grissom), The Book of Night Women (Marlon James), and Property (Valerie Martin).

We did discuss my concerns about American Dirt. Jennie  pointed out, and I think on this point I agree with her and I was wrong before, that Whitehead may be privileged but he would still be judged by the colour of his skin and he would still have trauma as part of his history and this gave him the right to write about slavery. Although I now feel that he had an authentic voice, it doesn’t detract from my view that Jeanine Cummins also had a right to write American Dirt.  

Most of us also felt it unfair that Whitehead was able to deploy literary techniques to heighten suspense and to bend the truth when Cummins was pilloried for it.  The vast majority of us preferred Cummins book.  As Jan said American Dirt had dark and light and was linear. With this one she was always wondering did I miss something?

I said it was interesting that this book won the Pulitzer. Anne-Marie and I have a theory that the Pulitzer is not always the best book as it is often a consensus choice. Much like the Oscars do not always go to the best movie. I certainly couldn’t see why The Overstory by Richard Powers won.  Jan said The Shipping News by Annie Proulx was an exception to this – it was excellent.

Even Jennie who I feel did enjoy this book pointed out that it was not one of Whiteheads best books and said we should try to read some of his other works. Jennie said for a more literal take on The Underground Railroad, the film Harriet, about Harriet Tubman was excellent and was available on Prime video.

Jennie did make me realise that I should check my privilege and that my earlier comments in this blog where disingenuous. She said, she doesn’t experience racism on a daily basis as Whitehead or other black Americans do, she can try to put herself in their position but she will never really understand what they are going through. Whatever she does it will never be enough.

Perhaps therefore this was a good choice for Black History Month, although not a great book, it has made me question my assumptions and made me more aware of inherent racism, even I hate to say it, my own and the importance of checking my privilege.

Reviews online

Interview with the author

Future books

Monday 2 November, ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo.

Monday 16 November ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ by Ben Lerner.

Monday 30 November ‘American Wife’ by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Just because I can’t resist and I love Evita

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