Monday, March 26, 2018

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

I’ve had this extraordinary book on the stack of books by my bed for a while. It won the Clarke Award last year, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. The cover tells us that Barack Obama thought it “terrific.”

It’s the tale of a slave girl, Cora, who runs away from an abysmally brutal life on a plantation, despite the threat of even more brutal reprisals should she be caught. Cora soon meets up with the “underground railroad” that helps get escaped slaves to the freedom of the north, but the conceit here is that the railroad is not just the name of a loose organisation of helpers. There really are trains, riding tracks hidden deep into American soil.

The judges of the Clarke Award seem to have considered this enough to make the book count as science-fiction, or at least an alternative history that could still be included in its remit. I’m grateful for that because that award first brought the book to my attention. But having read it, I’m not so sure. Whatever the case, it is a brilliant book, one that will linger long in my thoughts.

One particularly impressive achievement is the sheer number of characters, many of them met only fleetingly, who are nevertheless vivid and alive. Characters are often introduced with a telling insight, such as the vicious Ridgeway, the man employed to hunt Cora and the other escapees, whose whole worldview is conveyed in his judgment on other professions.
“If you weren’t a little dirty at the end of the day, you weren’t much of a man.”
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, p. 88.
Between the main sections of the book detailing Cora’s adventures, some supporting characters also have their lives and outlooks explored in single chapters – in some cases after we already know the terrible ways they met their deaths.

It’s established early that anyone can be suddenly beaten or killed, but often Cora must move on without knowing the fate of those close to her. Then, towards the end, we hear what befell some of those she had to abandon. We’ve covered so much ground and met so many other people yet this news hits us hard because the characters are so well drawn.

The scale and horror of the oppression, delivered in different forms in different states, is appalling. When she first escapes, the railroad gets Cora to South Carolina, which seems heavenly compared to all she’s known before. She considers settling there. But if she hasn’t noticed disquieting aspects, we have. There’s the strict segregation. There’s the icky nature of the job she’s required to do, as part of a living display in a museum. There’s the visit to the doctor, softly smiling as he mentions a method of permanent birth control.
“‘The choice is yours, of course,’ the doctor said. ‘As of this week, it is mandatory for some in the state. Coloured women who have already birthed more than two children, in the name of population control. Imbeciles and the otherwise mentally unfit, for obvious reasons. Habitual criminals. But that doesn’t apply to you, Bessie. Those are women who already have enough burdens. This is just a chance for you to take control over your own destiny.”
Ibid, p. 135.
They then ask her, whatever she decides for herself, to explain the process to the less intelligent girls in her dormitory.

That’s another thing the book does very well: exploring how this awful regime is maintained and enforced, the wider systems of oppression as well as individual brutal acts. As it moves from state to state, it becomes a book about America itself, the violence on which it was founded and what might be done.

There’s a debate towards the end among the liberated black people about how to take things further, to end the cycle of horrific abuse when faced with such vested interests. Catching up with the news as I finished the book, I could see a parallel with the recent March for Life against gun violence. And maybe that’s why The Underground Railroad is science-fiction: it’s set in history, but it’s about the future.

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