Leisure Literature: The Underground Railroad

When I can find extra moments, there is always a list of books I want to read. Some I anticipate for months, some for years before I find the time to get to them, and some of them live up to the hype and some don’t. Leisure Literature is a book review column that details my thoughts on my recent readings.

I saw someone reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead on the plane, and apparently I had unconsciously heard of it before. I put it on my Goodreads list and did some more research; apparently it was one of the big hits of 2016. By chance, I walked into my school library one morning and saw it on the featured shelf, so I checked it out. (Sidenote: The librarian told me I was the first one to do so, hooray.)

The initial “appeal point” of this book was supposed to be that the Underground Railroad is, in fact, a underground railroad. However, the book is much more than that. Cora, a slave on the extremist Randall plantation makes a harrowing escape through many different locations, experiencing basically everything America has to offer a black person during her time. Each place has a different lesson for her as she seeks freedom, all ultimately pointing to the fact that there may never be true freedom.

Somehow, I read this book at an extremely timely point during school and life in general; I am in both US and World history at school, and we were not only talking about the treatment of blacks, free and otherwise, in US history (N. Carolina), but also the Atlantic slave trade in World (S. Carolina). Even Mingo’s policy (Indiana) reminded me of Trump’s policy towards the refugee crisis. Even though The Underground Railroad is technically fiction, it really supplemented my history classes in school, and my history classes supplemented reading this book.

Some of my favorite things: the different perspectives (Stevens, Mabel, Ridgeway, etc.), the way Whitehead was able to write Ridgeway so dreadfully fearsome (I legitimately jumped each time he appeared), the wide range of characters and opinions, the difference between slow and fast and how it’s interesting regardless of pace, leaving parts of the story unexplained and coming back to it later, and how tactfully death and the gruesome are easy to read and passed over as nothing (because that’s all the room for sensitivity people had back then).

I think it’s an interesting side discussion to talk about whether historical books like this that truthfully document how racism has worked in the past contributes to the subconscious racism many Americans experience today, or if it is a necessary insight into our past. I don’t deny that it is important to learn how we used to be, but I wonder if that unintentionally contributes to how we are now (rather than its ‘intended effect’ of motivating us to be different than we were).

Overall, The Underground Railroad is really well-researched and touches on so many different aspects of the history of African Americans. I looked forward to reading this very much each night with my scant bit of spare time, which tells me that it is a good book (even though I can’t exactly pin my finger on why). I can sense that there is even more to glean from this book if I read it again.

Leisure Literature: The Underground Railroad