Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On the Rails

We had book club today, talking about The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead.  It's the first book I've ever read by Whitehead, and it was really an incredible book--painful and exhilarating and pretty explicitly a work of genius.

Unfortunately, I don't even feel remotely qualified to do a reader's guide for this one. It's just too...big? raw? intimate? It's a lot of these things, but most of all I'd say it's brilliantly structured.

Cora is a slave on a plantation in the South, which is pretty horrifying, as you might imagine.  Her mother escaped when Cora was young, leaving her on her own in a horrible situation and now, many  years later, Cora takes thee opportunity to run. She travels with another escaped slave, Caesar, on the Underground Railroad. In her travels, she sees different parts of the country and the different situations of black people.

It's kind of a Pilgrim's Progress of horrors. Magical realism isn't quite the right term, but there is the feel of a fairy tale or a parable about this. The first clue is the actual railroad that runs underground, on which Cora makes her escape.  It's not really dreamlike, not the way I expect magical realism to be.  It's actually much more realistic--different stations in different states of repair, and the characters wonder over who built it and how it works.

But it's also both ends of a metaphor--the railroad and the mysterious connection going to no one knows where. And at every point in the journey, each stop takes you on a tour through a lot of the horrifying things that have been done to black Americans through history. It's not literally an antebellum landscape--we get a glimpse of the Tuskegee experiments, of Jim Crow sundown laws (only worse, so much worse), of all kinds of horrors in all kinds of guises. 

Cora is an interesting protagonist--she's prickly and not terribly personable, and she's not an adventurous person.  Although she does several heroic things, she's not a hero.  I'm reminded of Sansa Stark--when you read a story about great injustice, you expect your protagonist to rise up and vanquish it.  But really, if the world was full of heroes there'd be a lot less injustice, and the most a person can often hope for is to survive and not be to horribly damaged by the journey.

Okay, I do have a couple of talking points, in case you have a book group of your own.  Here are my questions.

1. What did you think of the interstitial chapters, where you get glimpses of other characters' back stories?  Did you feel like they fit together with each other?  They seemed to serve many different purposes; did they have anything in common?

2. What did you think of Ridgeway? Did he feel like a real person, or like an archetype of a slave hunter?  He stood for the institution--indifferent and implacable.  How did he work as a human being.  And, corollary, how did the character of Homer work for you, as an archetype/stereotype and as a person?

3. This is the worst question, but which state was the most horrifying to you?  Which atrocity struck you hardest.  I was surprised at the different answers in our group.

4. What did you think of the ending, both as a symbolic ending to the journey and as a place to stop the narrative?  What do you think would come next--or maybe I mean what would be the logical next place for this story to go?

Discussing in book club, we kept saying "so depressing, horrifying."  But the fact is that it was a beautiful book to read.  It was horrifying, but it also gave you enough space among the horrors to catch your breath and appreciate the storytelling that was going on here, and the craftsmanship that takes on the enormity of an historic experience and shapes it for a modern audience in a most accessible way.

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