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A Brilliant Historical Novel of Truth and Travail
May 4, 2017 --Winner of the 2016 National Book Award and 2017 Pulitzer Prize, The Underground Railroad is categorized as historical fiction. But you don't need historical accuracy to appreciate the heart-rending emotions that it both imagines and evokes.
The New York Times bestseller is a resounding triumph, recounting what is probably the true story of slavery and its unbearable excesses. Author Colson Whitehead brilliantly depicts the horrific lives of slaves in the early 1800s and the sweeping tale paints the savagery of slavery as it was practiced in some areas of what would become the Confederacy.
It is a book that is both hard to put down and to keep reading in sizable passages. Although I needed an occasional respite from the beautifully written but painful saga, I was always aware of its presence on my nightstand. I occasionally awoke in the middle of the night and read a few pages.
Many readers heard of The Underground Railroad as an Oprah's Book Club pick, but I'd seen no reviews, only something about it on local television. What attracted me was a desire to be enlightened as to how the escape system really worked in the South. I'd never been able to figure that out given the circumstances of the times. Curiosity led me to Whitehead's own imaginative envisioning of the transport used to secretly move slaves, hopefully to freedom.
The railroad, an apparition, barely exists in this harrowing tale of cruelty, occasional glimpses of redemption and what may be seen as the affirmation of man's inhumanity to man. Its existence raises more questions than it answers. For example, how could a real train have been created and survive within the heart of a racist South and its plantation society?
To understand the enormity of slavery, consider these statistics: In 1790, slaves outnumbered whites in Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia. In 1850, North Carolina had more slaves than whites, too. There were also increases in the numbers for South Carolina (nearly 85 percent) and Georgia (125 percent). As the insatiable demand for cotton grew, so, too, did the need for slaves to harvest it.
Whitehead's story gets underway at the mammoth Randall family plantation in Georgia with a population of hundreds of slaves. To put it mildly, the day-to-day living conditions were hardly paramount to its owners, the brothers Theodore and James Randall.
Control is exercised by cat-o-nine tails, liberally applied, and other punishments that would arouse the envy of the Nazis. The close quarters, repetitive menu, spectacle of public punishment and the painful absence of any sort of justice for this black population paint a picture in your mind that is hard to erase and one that, quite honestly, you shouldn't ignore.
The central character is a teenage slave named Cora, who knows only the Spartan and harsh life of the Randall plantation where she was born and raised. Her mother, Mabel, is the only slave who ever escaped from this compound. This reality is the central focus in Cora's mind. She is resentful and unable to forgive her mother for leaving her behind, at age ten, in this living hell.
The tyranny of planting and picking cotton was ever demanding, but the slaves do get a respite on Sunday afternoons. There are usually games and contests and other social activities during the time off. At one such gathering Cora is approached by a fellow slave, Caesar, who plants the seed of escape. He probably selects Cora because of her mother's legacy.
It takes a while, but Caesar and Cora finally get out and the first leg of their journey is via the mythic underground railroad that Whitehead has created. Cora's journey is suspenseful--and riveting--as she is pursued by various patrols and Ridgeway, a relentless slave catcher who failed to recapture Mabel. In a brilliant plot device, Whitehead has Cora travel through various states that represent what he describes as "a different state of American possibility" and that depict various forms of racism.
Will Cora find safety as she heads North? Will her escape end in freedom? The Underground Railroad is an emotional rollercoaster that should be read by every American and every citizen of the planet who believes in a legal system that is supposed to ensure equal treatment and justice for all.
I predict The Underground Railroad will be a classic of its kind and one that is guaranteed to stay with you, as it has with me and others. Congratulations, Colson Whitehead, on authoring the only novel to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award since Annie Proulx' The Shipping News in 1994. Bravo.
Originally published last August, The Underground Railroad is available from Amazon.com in several formats.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.