Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Colson Whitehead, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Well worth reading. It's a heartbreaking story of Cora, a slave in the South, who attempts to escape the plantation, following her mother Mabel who (it is said) escaped years before, leaving her young daughter behind. In a way it reminds me of a picaresque, set in episodes, with Cora meeting a huge variety of people along the way. Whitehead's writing is beautiful and deft: "The house had been built fifty years before and the stairs creaked. A whisper in one room carried into the next two." "Ava was wiry and strong, with hands as quick as a cottonmouth." For me, what added to the painfulness of the read was the way he puts the most heartbreaking moments into the plainest, sparest prose, suggesting that all this cruelty and viciousness is all quite ordinary: "Cora started for the stairs but they complained reliably, warning her so often these last few months, that she knew she wouldn't be able to make it. She crawled under Martin's old bed and that's where they found her, snatching her ankles like irons and dragging her out. They tossed her down the stairs. She jammed her shoulder into the banister at the bottom. Her ears rang." The review in the New Yorker made the point that the book skewers the myth (that I heard in my earliest history classes) that the North was a land of tolerance, welcoming escaped slaves and helping them along. Whitehead's version of history shows that betrayals cross gender, age, race, and geography; they take every shape.