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My thoughts on The Underground Railroad, my first introduction to Colson Whitehead.

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I followed the success of this book with interest, remembering that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man won the National Book Award for fiction in 1950 and The Color Purple by Alice Walker did in 1983, both works I respected, but that since, African-American writers have been absent as victors. It is impossible not to think of the farce of the Oscars and other cultural awards when 34 years go between the appearance of anyone black on a list such as this.

Here is a historical fiction on the implementation of pre-Civil War slavery at the peak of the slavers repression of the slaves – the era when a few men of conscience were freeing slaves and encouraging states to outlaw the practice. Running away was working.

It is thus set at the time when repression was at its most savage; when slaving whites were afraid of uprisings and cracked back with an orgy of violence to send the message of their superiority.

Whitehead has a crisp tone and a direct manner, writing in the third yet exhibiting effortless shift of vantage, moving between the runaway slaves Cora and Caesar and the tumbling, ever-pressing posse of those who would catch and sell or kill them – led by the relentless Mr. Ridgeway – as well as a cast of characters that surround and support or seek to destroy the railroad.

In Whitehead’s telling the railroad is real and mechanical and underground, belching and speeding through darkness shielded from the stars and thus to who-knows-where with intense purpose or driven by the hand of a wild-eyed refugee pumping a pushcart through the narrowing and darkening hole to the point of exhaustion to escape her pursuers.

The book is brutal because the era is brutal and the telling is matter-of-fact about events that are a stain upon our national character – eugenics experiments alongside the horrifying comfort of those who laughed and skipped and played as they lynched, raped, burnt to a crisp and whipped to death. It is all here laid bare, written without sentimentality. I understand the book took Whitehead a decade and a half to write and the work is apparent as the narrative careens forward, northward, zigs toward unknown locales, zags to known others.

In some ways Whitehead’s craft in this book reminds me of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. I am not sure how I mean that except to say writing on matters that are so difficult to describe for their savagery requires a deft hand, an honest heart and a razor-sharp mind.

This is fine work – a worthy National Book Award winner – and I agree with those who believe all Americans should read it.

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