The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. Doubleday (2016), Edition: 1St Edition, 320 pages
A widely praised, recent novel about slavery and black oppression that blends sharp realism about slavery with surrealistic accounts of alternative ways in which African Americans experienced oppression.
Colson Whitehead is a talented and experienced writer. The African American New Yorker graduated from Harvard before embarking on a variety of journalistic and creative writing projects to great acclaim. The Underground Railroad was published in 2016 and was awarded the National Book Award and other prizes. Reviewers call it a masterpiece. None the less, I found it a troubling and disturbing book.
No one could argue that the book is not impressive in its language and conception. The writing is impressive and intense. Characters are well-developed, complex, and unique. The plot is full of suspense yet central enough to keep the almost sprawling action held in a unified whole. The overall mood of the book is very intense, at times distressingly so when depicting atrocities against slaves.
My problems with The Underground Railroad are less with the book itself than with the fact it was published in a “post-factual” time. Whitehead writes about the experience of slavery with factual accuracy. The specifics of the characters and experiences are imaginary, but totally within what can be known. Not all plantations were as bad the one featured in the book, but Randal was within the range of what was possible, depicting what slaves with more kindly owners always knew could happen to them given the uncertainty of slave life. Mixed in with these basically factual accounts, Whitehead introduces other social groups that are highly imaginative. Whitehead writes that South Carolina sought to educate “freed” slaves while controlling them with sterilization. He describes how North Carolina killed and exiled any blacks they found in the state and replaced them with European immigrants. Sadly, there never was a large, vibrant community of ex-slaves in Indiana like the one he imagines. And, of course, the “underground railroad” never had real tracks and engines crisscrossing the nation. Yet in Whitehead’s book all these actual and surrealistic accounts are treated as if they are exactly the same.
Many readers of The Underground Railroad obviously are not bothered by blending of fact and fiction. We live in societies where the distinction between the two is often obliterated. That works only if readers have a grounded knowledge of the nineteenth-century America. I no longer believe they do. Look, for example, at the recent election here in the United States. Accepting that everything is affected by personal perspective should not lead to the assumption that nothing is true, and yet that is what seems to have happened for significant numbers of people. In this climate, I see Whitehead as normalizing the destruction of the concepts of fact and fiction. Understanding the reality of the slave experience in the United States is an important piece of understanding racial tension here in the present. For slavery to be treated as only as real as the other settings in the book is to devalue its importance. Given the level of historical knowledge in my country, it is easy to assume that readers, both black and white, will do just that. While I regularly enjoy speculative fiction that includes both realistic and imaginary writing, I believe this book goes too far.
This is a book of obvious literary merit, but I cannot honestly recommend for others to read it. If you do, at least consider the underlying problem of obliterating all distinction between fact and fiction, no matter how blurry that line becomes.
Miss Burma, by Charmaine Craig. Grove Press (2017), 368 pages.
A dramatic historical novel about a young woman and her family in Burma during World War II and the conflicts and dictatorships that followed.
Charmaine Craig is the daughter of Louisa, the “Miss Burma” whose story she tells in her new books. Louisa came to the United States after the events recounted, and Craig herself was born here. Craig graduated from Harvard and earned a creative writing degree from the University of California, Irving. She has acted in film, taught creative writing and has written a previous novel, A Good Man. In Miss Burma, Craig never mentions her personal connection to the stories she tells and leaves readers to guess which parts are historically true and which are the products of her own imagination or that of her family.
The book begins with the marriage of Benny, a Jewish resident of Burma, and Khim, a woman of the Karen tribe, a group regularly discriminated against by the more prosperus Burman tribe. Benny is employed by the British who still colonize Burma at the beginning of the story. Benny and Khim remain central to the book even when attention shifts to their daughter, Louisa. During World War II, when Louisa is a young girl, the Japanese invaded Burma. Death and confusion overwhelm the country. The family members are scattered. Benny is captured and tortured by the Japanese, and Khim forced to protect her young children alone. Benny returns to the family, but nothing returns to normal. The British grant independence to Burma, establishing a dictator, friendly to the Allies, but intent on destroying tribal minorities like the Karin. Americans enter the political scene with contradictory goals and betray the Karins. Inside the family, personal betrayals fester. Pretense and forbearance seem to have replaced spontaneous love. Benny is jailed again. Louisa grows into a beautiful adolescent who wins beauty contests and lives as a glamorous public persona before marrying and becoming more deeply involved in the resistance.
Themes of suffering and betrayal, distrust and solitude run through the book, but there were so many characters and so much was happening that I found it difficult to become invested in the book. Some images, particularly those of torture, were disturbing.
Readers who are interested in Burma, Southeast Asia, World War II, or American Cold War policies may want to read this book as well as those who enjoy fast paced, multi-character, war novels.
I feel like I have read an incredible number of excellent books this year. Check out my reviews of them. I hope you will read some of them.
My ability to borrow good global publication has plummeted since my move in 2015–and from my husband’s retirement from his position of library dean. I no longer have a strong library collection or good interlibrary loan access. Since I can’t afford to buy whatever I choose, I read fewer Australian and African books. For some reason I was able to get review copies of Asian and Middle Eastern books. We’ll see what the future brings.
MEMOIRS AND NONFICTION
The Hour of Daydreams, Renee Macalino Rutledge. Forest Avenue Press (2017), 232 pages. Forthcoming.
A love story steeped in dreams and conflicting memories set in the Philippines and written by a Philippine American woman.
Renee Macalino Rutledge was born in the Philippines and raised in the United States. She has degrees in English from UC-Berkley and in Creative Writing from Mills College. Her essays and short stories have been widely published. This is her first book.
The Hour of Daydreams is about Manolo Lualhati, a doctor in a small imaginary village, and his wife. Although the couple love each other deeply, Manolo frets over Tala’s secrecy about her past and present. They have a child and Tala leaves, the subject of varied rumors over her identity.
Title of the book comes from an incident in the story and from its overall impression. Rutledge’s prose is dreamy and filled with beautiful descriptions, often of the landscape. In addition, she tells multiple, conflicting stories, some about “real” life and some magical. Rutledge seems to do little to reconcile the stories or to prioritize them. While her characters discuss and debate the presence of supernatural creatures, I was left unsure of what had happened. I often enjoy tales containing magic and different versions of events, I found myself uncomfortable with uncertainty that dominates this book. Without some grounding, I could not trust the characters or understand their motivations. I simply do not accept that all that is claimed to be true is equally real in a concrete physical sense.
This is another book that other readers may like more than I did.
Locust Girl: A Love Story, by Merlinda Bobis. Spinifex Press (2016), 179 pages.
An impressionistic novel set in a dry desert world full of wounded bodies and featuring a girl with a singing locust embedded on her forehead.
Merlinda Bobis was born in the Philippines and now lives and teaches in Australia. The merit of her work has been widely recognized. Some of her early works were rather conventional, but with her acclaimed Fish Hair Woman she moved into a more experimental style. Locust Girl moves further in this direction as she tells a story that stretches the boundary of rational thought into the poetic imagination.
As the setting for her story, Bobis has created a monochromatic desert world where everything, including the people, are brown. Locust Girl, the central character and narrator of the book, emerges from a decade long burial to meet another young girl and the two of them set off to find “the border,” meeting a variety of wounded, oppressed people on their journey. Slowly the reader and the characters remember events and songs. The women are finally taken into the idyllic “Five Kingdoms” where water and trees are protected. All the colors are present, especially green which they had not previously known. But the leaders of the Kingdom protect this oasis by their rigid management of all the “strays” that exist out of the desert.
This is a lyrical book that others will probably appreciate more than I did. It was simply too abstract and symbolic for me. I cannot explain what the book “means,” only that I read it just after the US election and it seemed oddly appropriate. The “haves” do not understand or care about the “have-nots.”
Disaster Falls: A Family Story, Stephane Gerson. Crown (2017), 272 pages. FORTHCOMING.
A haunting account of a man trying to make sense of the death of his eight-year-old son who was drowned in a boating accident.
A couple and their two sons took a float trip on Utah’s Green River. They knew little about running rivers or the American west, but the trip was said to be safe for children. The unthinkable happened. Their younger son drowned in the rapids. Over the next three years, the boy’s father struggled to make sense of what had taken place as the family tried to move on. This book is his narrative of that struggle.
Stephane Gerson is a cultural historian who teaches at New York University. Cultural historians are an emerging subset of historians who focus on understanding cultural adaptations and how they change. In his prize-winning scholarly work, Gerson has focused on topics like memories and geographical place. For example, he has looked at the impact of tumultuous events like the French Revolution on individuals and culture rather than its concrete political affect. Unlike traditional intellectual historians who have studied “great men and great ideas,” cultural historians look at the attitudes that pervade groups of people. They are sensitive to the stories that people construct to explain their lives. They are aware that such stories may differ widely and be contradictory. Instead of absolute factual accuracy, they are interested in the shape and textures of the stories. Gerson’s account of accepting his son’s death grows out of the assumptions of his field, although he shuns the jargon that too often makes cultural history difficult to read.
What happened to eight-year-old Owen was incomprehensible to his father, and Gerson needed to find a means of coping with it. Although he had no hope that would find a definite answer to his literal or metaphysical questions, his response was to write, to craft words that could allow him to negotiate the path ahead. At first he wrote in his journal and later he composed this book.
Gerson writes with skill and insight. He brings readers into his numbness and sense of isolation without becoming voyeuristic or smothering them in his emotions. He is fully aware of what words can and cannot do. Deliberately refusing to get caught up in anger and blame, he experiences deep guilt as a parent who failed at any parent’s chief task, keeping his child safe. Because he wants to honor and remember his son, he continues to look for the words to express the unthinkable.
As Gerson makes clear, he has not written an advice book but an account of his own introspective journey. His wife and his surviving son took different paths, but the family deliberately decided not to allow the tragedy to destroy their family bonds. Theirs was a Jewish family, but not a particularly observant one. At times traditional Jewish words and practices resonated, but family did not find a solution to their grief in religion. Gerson’s parents had escaped Nazi Germany and continued to live in Belgium. After Owen’s death, Gerson pondered his own identity as both a father and a son. His father’s death, three years after Owen’s, brought him a sense of his ongoing relationship to both.
Disaster Falls is the name of the book and the place where Owen died. It also identifies the devastating loss of meaning that can occur in our lives. As such I recommend this book to all who are dealing such losses themselves. Reading Gerson can provide a sense that those who grieve are not as alone as they often feel. Another person has been through the darkness been able to find words for it, inadequate as they may be. The book also can provide insight and permission to follow one’s path because there is no one required way to grieve.
In addition, Gerson offers an example what it means to “construct our own stories.” Such an idea is commonplace among some academics, but some within and without academia, find it disturbing and overly relativistic. Gerson displays how stories are not simply things we “make up” but can be grounded in the objective physical realities of life. The fact Owen died is about as real as anything can be. So are the swirling contradictions that Gerson experiences. The story is literally a way to bring order to what is unthinkable. The story does not claim to be perfectly objectively true, although it must include that sort of truth. It is not the only valid story; other valid stories can be told from other perspectives. The story’s power is that an acceptable narrative can allow us to survive extreme loss. As my nation moves into an unthinkable future, I long for words to make bearable. Perhaps we all need to find new stories to deal with our new realities.
I sincerely recommend this book to a variety of readers who are curious about creating stories that face reality and steady us as we live through turbulent times.