The Underground Railroad

I have been slowly (think glacial) picking my way through Ulysses by James Joyce. In that book every single word, nay, every single syllable, has at least one, if not five, references, meanings, and points. The search for purpose that is required of my reading experience in Ulysses has infected how I read every other book I pick up. Sometimes this can lead to disappointment and fraying loose ends, not so with Colson Whitehead’s, The Underground Railroad. In fact, I think this is a rare story that can be both easily and critically read.

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The underground railroad in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is literally underground. This is the most obvious difference from a typical escaped slave narrative story that Colson Whitehead makes in the telling of Cora’s search for freedom. There are plenty more. The very first chapter of the book is a very cut and dry telling of how Cora’s grandma ended up a slave on the cotton plantation in Georgia where Cora grew up. This fact driven, historical tone of a tragic story being told in an almost bullet point manner eases the reader into a setting that we are all too familiar and comfortable with. Colson Whitehead proceeds to pull the soft rug out from under us and wrap us in the rough underbelly that was always there but never seen.

The harsh truths of history that he presents are mixed together and jumbled in a sort of state line divided time warp. In each place Cora ends up, there is a new system to navigate. Throughout the book there is a constant sense of disconnect and unease sometimes for both Cora and the reader, but even when Cora is most comfortable the reader is struck with a sense of knowing something will go wrong. This is a virtue of having learned the history, but it also speaks to Colson Whitehead’s fantastic writing. Throughout the story Cora remains distant from the reader. There are moment in which the reader can relate to and empathize with Cora and her experiences but she also, often, holds us at arms length. This, in many stories, could be disconcerting and off putting. This, however, is a story about a women that grew up as a slave with no family. She has no reason to trust people and for her own survival she keeps all at arms length. If the reader were to feel connected to her, Cora’s story would lose it powerful impact. Ultimately, this is a horrifying, beautifully written, and important story.

 

Common Place Book Entries:

“The cabins radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings in those who lived and died in them: envy and spite.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“The words from across the ocean were beaten out of them over time. For simplicity, to erase their identities, to smother uprisings.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“The only way to know how long you are lost in the darkness is to be saved from it.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“The night was his opponent, Cora decided, the night and the phantoms he filled it with.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“They were ghosts themselves, caught between two worlds: the reality of their crimes, and the hereafter denied them for those crimes.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Being free had nothing to do with the chains or how much space you had.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“She’d learned to walk with irons. It was hard to believe it had taken this long.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“She didn’t recognize the Declaration of Independence the day she joined them in the meeting house.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“There’s room enough for different notions when it comes to charting our path through the wilderness. When the night is dark and full of treacherous footing.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useful truth.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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