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A Brilliant Book in a Painful Season

Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. First posted at Goodreads:

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Up there with WOLF HALL as a spectacular historical novel (one of the best I’ve read), but so so different. Because not only are the characters fictional, but the armature it’s built on — the notion that there was actually a physical railroad running under the ground, conveying brave fugitive slaves to different areas of the United States — is obviously counterfactual.

And yet it’s also clearly and eloquently steeped in the too little acknowledged fact of centuries of United States slavery. For example, the terse occasional section headings (taken from university archives) are actual advertisements placed by the owners of runaway slaves, like:

30 DOLLARS REWARD
will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl, and will no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn. I have been informed she is lurking in and about Edenton.
BENJ. P. WELLS
Murfreesboro, Jan. 5, 1812

Each is as chilling as only historical actuality can be: plainspoken testament to casual daily inhumanity as inured to its own degradation of spirit as it is deaf and blind to the unfathomable bravery of its victim; raw material for Whitehead’s brilliant fantastical picaresque through a few of this nation’s institutions of oppression and racism; more than a century of history and geography telescoped, origami’ed into one woman’s adventure away from bondage and the shame of bondage.

And yet, as I write this — as I urge you to read it NOW — run, don’t walk — I fear that I’m misrepresenting this stunning novel by making it sound like it’s good for you, a moral lesson. When in fact it reads quickly, fluidly: My notebook is studded with passages I copied out in order to try to pin it down, to better marvel at the clear, sure, compassionate sentences, the ongoing mysteries of people and objects, perception and understanding.

A notion creeps over the heroine “like a shadow.” She smiles, another slave observes, “with brevity and sufficiency.” Caesar, the slave who sees her, “had never spoken to her but had figured this out about her. It was sensible. She knew the preciousness of what she called her own. Her joys, her plot, that block of sugar maple she perched on like a vulture.” I lingered over the word “sensible” for quite a while: sensible as in perceptible to the senses. There’s an imminence, a tremulous to this parodic universe where people are used as things and the tears of things shimmer in the air. “It was the most splendid locomotive yet, its shiny red paint paint returning the light even through the shroud of soot.” “She’d never been the first person to open a book.” “Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.”

Fully a wonderful novel, enriching and necessary in a painful season.

View all my reviews

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