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The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead.

January 12, 2017


The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead.  Doubleday (2016), Edition: 1St Edition, 320 pages

 3 stars

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2017 5:14 pm

    I haven’t read this book yet (I have it on order) but I am very grateful to you for this perspective because everything else I have read is uniformly positive. And because I live in Australia, I fit into the category of people who don’t know much about American slavery (though enough to feel disconcerted that the film Gone with the Wind is still uncritically regarded as a great film).
    I’ve made a note of this review so that I can revisit it when eventually I read the book.

    • January 13, 2017 9:37 am

      Yes. I know how much other people has liked this book. I may be obsessing about the need to what is fact and what is fiction. I basically agree with the attacks on trusting “objective” facts alone, but concrete, physical facts matter. I don’t see how a diverse nation like mine can function if we can’t agree on basic questions about the reality of our past and present.
      Of course there is also the question of whether literature has any responsibility to address such issues.

      • January 13, 2017 5:35 pm

        Well, it’s a tricky one. A blend of fact and fiction is common these days, and in many contexts it makes for great reading and does no harm. But I’ve arced up about a couple of them because I’ve felt that same issue: that a blend of fact and fiction is ok when you’re dealing with readers who know which is which. But with issues like slavery, or The Holocaust, or in Australia, the Stolen Generations, then (though it has to be said that most readers of literary fiction are educated) there is potential for harm.

  2. January 13, 2017 2:16 am

    I really do not understand your review, are you trying to say that the book is good though it exaggerates the atrocities of slavery?

    • January 13, 2017 9:42 am

      NO. I am saying the opposite. The description of slavery is a realistic picture of what was possible under slavery. Not all plantations were this bad, but some were. I am saying that to write realistically about slavery and then fantasize about other alternative as if they were equally real is a problem. To do that is to make the description of slavery seem imagined as well. And it is not.

      • charmingyellow permalink
        January 13, 2017 12:33 pm

        I get it! I have not read the book yet, I’d love to read it, moreover I am a keen follower of your reviews too.

        I am not sure how bad the description of plantation is in this book, however, just the word “plantation” during the transatlantic slave trade brings to mind all indecribable inhumane condition I can possibly think of. I do not believe that there is any African of that time that after being born or sold into slavery in Africa, crossed the Atlantic ocean… resold…. is possibly happy to be forced to work in a plantation field. So, when I read “Not all plantations were this bad” in my opinion, somewhat downplays the atrocities of that time.

        But again… I think it would be a good reason for me to read the book and see for myself.

  3. January 13, 2017 1:39 pm

    I never meant to imply that slavery was acceptable any where anytime. It was and is dehumanizing and cruel. Always. Even if owners think they are being kind. Still, some owners were worse than others. Not good, but not choosing to be cruel either, like the owners in Underground Railroad. Slaves were still treated as objects and at risk for being sold away from family, but sometimes they had decent food, clothing, and shelter. The minority of slaves that served in plantation households were generally better treated than field slaves–unless an owner was particularly sadistic. “Happy slaves” were a myth created by slave owners, but sometimes slaves got better treatment if they smiled rather than rebelled. But they were still slaves. And that was bad.

    And slaves had none of the alternatives that Whitehead invents for his book. That was one of the many problems of being a slave. Short of Canada, even if you ran away you had no place to go.

    Yes, read Underground Railroad. There are also other excellent books about slavery. You might like A Million Nightingales, by Susan Straight, Invention of Wings by Sue Kidd Monk, and Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, which are all novels and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Woman, which was written by a woman who was a slave. There are lots of interviews online with former slaves from the WPA project in the 1930s.

  4. February 3, 2017 9:25 am

    Interesting review. I’ve not yet read the book but I do have it on my TBR pile. I fully understand your points, especially in the current political reality in the US, but at the same time isn’t fiction always a blend of facts and make-believe? Or is it just extra so in this book?

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