The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead, 2016

Read for the Second Monday book group. I was intrigued by the premise (an alternate world where the Underground Railroad was an actual network of tunnels with real trains), but that turned out to be a minor and annoying feature of an mostly-realistic and harrowing novel. Whitehead says that as a child, he thought the UR was real rather than metaphorical; I can confirm from my library career in Montrose, PA, which was a stop (and a terminus) on the UR, that many adults still think so. I can’t put my finger on exactly how it could have been done, but IMO Whitehead should have handled the “real” UR stuff so that it was more clearly metaphorical or magical realist. As it is, it’s mostly preposterous without being useful to the novel, which is otherwise good. The other alternate-history passages, namely the way different states have adopted different strategies, explicitly inspired by Gulliver’s Travels, work. There’s actually a passage at the end which redeemed the real trains for me, but it was just too little too late. But in looking back at my flags, maybe I’m wrong and I would need to read it again. Here’s the passage I wish I had thought more about on initial reading:

The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables—this was a marvel to be proud of.


The iron horse still rumbled through the tunnel when she woke. Lumbly’s words returned to her: If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.

And in the final pages:

She pumped and pumped and rolled out of the light. Into the tunnel that no one had made, that led nowhere. … Was she traveling through the tunnel or digging it? Each time she brought her arms down on the lever, she drove a pickaxe into the rock, swung a sledge onto a railroad spike. She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad. The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them. The station masters and conductors and sympathizers. Who are you after you finish something this magnificent—in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your flesh and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

So maybe I should re-read this at some point, because it may be that the why of the UR being real was just too subtle for me on a first reading. I do tend to read quickly for book groups; that’s one of the reasons I love when it’s something I’ve already read.

The book is full of memorable lines. “Stubborn breaks when it don’t bend.” About children killed on the Randall plantation: “At least they were never sold off, an older woman told Ajarry. Which was true—back then Randall rarely sold the little ones. You knew where and how your children would die.” Fighting among the slaves: “Take it out on each other if you cannot take it out on the ones who deserve it.” A quote from the slavecatcher Ridgeway: “‘Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.'” “The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.”

Cora on the “historical” displays in the museum where she’s forced to work as a living exhibit:

The stuffed coyotes on their stands did not lie, Cora supposed. And the anthills and the rocks told the truth of themselves. But the white exhibits contained as many inaccuracies and contradictions as Cora’s three habitats. … But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.

And her tactic of picking out people in the crowd to stare at:

The weak link—she liked the ring of it. To seek the imperfection in the chain that keeps you in bondage. Taken individually, the link was not much. But in concert with its fellows, a mighty iron that subjugated millions despite its weakness. The people she chose, young and old, from the rich part of town or the more modest streets, did not individually persecute Cora. As a community, they were shackles.

About a white boy who ends up dead as a consequence of her fleeing:

The boy’s death was a complication of her escape … But shutters swung out inside her and she saw the boy trembling on his sickbed, his mother weeping over his grave. Cora had been grieving for him, too, without knowing it. Another person caught in this enterprise that bound master and slave alike.

Cora on poetry:

Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you  when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.

A speech by Elijah Lander, whom various reviews claim stands in for Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Dubois:

We can’t save everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing’s going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers. Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without the yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick—yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.
Valentine farm is a delusion. Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history, it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are.
And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.

Runaway slave ads appear as chapter headings. The last is one of the best moments in the book:

from her legal but not rightful master …
She has stopped running.
Reward remains unclaimed.

It took me a long long time to finish this entry (read the book for a 1/8/2018 meeting, hitting “publish” on 4/7/2018 even though I back-date to when I read) and the book has stuck in my mind, raising its profile. I do want to read it again at some point and highly recommend it.

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