Let me tell you what this blog post is not: a critique on subject or a political statement. Let me tell you what it is: a review of a book. While I had such high hopes for this book—and there were many voices from Oprah Winfrey to The New York Times on the cover calling out to me its excellence—I did not think that it delivered. Oh, on some things it did: violence, gore, terror, a large cast of characters, a trek across the country, a step back in time… But on the magic realism, the unique take on the “Underground Railroad,” and a plot that moved forward in a trackable way, characters I could sink my teeth into: well, I don’t think it did.
I mean, the idea is so compelling. A female slave in the Deep South who runs away from a horrific life on a plantation, in the footsteps of her mother, and she finds herself on an actual, literal underground railroad. (If you are not sure of history here, there was neither actual underground or railroad about the Underground Railroad. It was more of a secret system of contacts that formed a web and/or a trail to get slaves from the south to the north and to freedom.) The story follows Cora from city to town and from one state to another to another, where the reader must encounter the reality of life for a black woman and an escaped slave in some bizarre iterations, and we begin to wonder if freedom can really be found anywhere. Now, I am a huge magic realism fan, so I was really hoping that this book would take a tale that had been told and marry it to a genre that, as far as I know, had not been used for it, and make something fresh and something that would cut to the quick for being so unique.
Let’s just say this first: the railroad is hardly in the book. And there is no other aspect of magic realism. So that was weird. Especially since Whitehead eventually uses the railroad itself to say something important about historical slavery, this was a missed opportunity. I know the story just passed through it here and there, but… I just expected much more. What else? Because that can’t be my only thought. Well, the language is beautiful and there are some keen observations. On the other hand, I found the language—while beautiful—to be dense and confusing. If there is a trait in literature that I like to float to the top of any reading, it just might be clarity. The Underground Railroad, however, was far from clear. I spent some time circling back around and re-reading bits, but I think it had more to do with this book being more exposition than story-telling and a ton to do with sentence structure. Whitehead’s sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters all feel “loopy” to me. I felt bogged down reading it, like there was fabric between me and the story, left for pages at a time wondering what had happened to the characters and/or to the story. Couple that with lots and lots of telling instead of showing, the confusing similarity of some of their names (Randall, Royal, and Ridgeway) and a lack of development of many of the secondary characters, and I was lost and many times bored.
Which is a little crazy, because this book was filled with the very worst of every plantation slave’s experience. Perhaps that was part of it. It was so horrifying that I started to go a little numb without a real plot to latch on to. Think of The Diary of a Young Girl: it’s the character of Anne and her story that are able to bring compassion to a story of such depravity. The Underground Railroad left me with only depravity and no compelling character or plot to anchor it, at least up until the end. For me, flowery language that was dripping with poetry and observation was not quite enough.
Not that I wouldn’t recommend this book, exactly. The ending does do some redeeming: as the plot picks up, we feel more at home with Cora, and even the railroad shows up more as a feature. And if you want to explore this subject, in all its gruesome reality, then I guess you could do that in this book. (Though I believe there are plenty of other books and movies that do that, and perhaps better.) It is a bit of a mystery to me, that Underground Railroad has gotten so many awards, like, say the Pulitzer Prize, and was at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. Perhaps other people, reading it before they expected it to be the sun and the moon, were swept away by their expecting nothing and encountering searing prose and a face that refused to turn away from the injustice. Then everyone else bought the book because it was so lauded and were okay with it enough to sing its praise, for the subject matter’s sake. And now I, who expected so much, am left droopy and not even really wanting to finish the thing. Remember, The Goldfinch really disappointed and bored me, as well, and for some of the same reasons. It’s like, if a book considers itself to be high art, it can’t have sympathetic characters, a well-developed plot, or clarity. Wouldn’t it be nice to have everything?
This may help you: The Underground Railroad is not magical realism, it is historical fiction with a small element of fantasy, but does not read like anything but historical fiction. It is dense and is meant for people who like language and concepts for language’s and concept’s sakes. It doesn’t hook you with its plot or its characters, but with its honesty and brutality. If you’re okay with some cloudiness and more telling than showing, then go right ahead and read this giant of modern literature. But if you’re asking for my recommendation, I’m going to have to point you elsewhere.
“They were treated to the same Randall hospitality, the travesties so routine and familiar that they were a kind of weather, and the ones so imaginative in their monstrousness that the mind refused to accommodate them. Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all the witnesses into enemies. Ava and Mabel did not get along” (p15).
“What did you get for that? For knowing the day you were born into the white man’s world? It didn’t seem like the thing to remember. More like to forget” (p26).
“Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude” (p29).
“…if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative” (p82).
“’A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality” (p105).
“But we can’t have you too clever. We can’t have you so fit you outrun us’” (p227).
“Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world” (p256).
“She’d never been the first person to open a book” (p257).
“’I’m what the botanists call a hybrid,’ he said the first time Cora heard him speak. ‘A mixture of two different families. In flowers, such a concoction pleases the eye. When that amalgamation takes shape in flesh and blood, some take great offense. In this room we recognize it for what it is—a new beauty come into the world, and it is in bloom all around us” (p260).
“Racial prejudice rotted one’s faculties, he said” (p274).
“’Indiana was a slave state,’ Valentine continued. ‘That evil soaks into the soil. Some say it seeps and gets stronger’” (p282).
Apparently, though I had been seeing previews for this since months and months ago, it has not yet been released on Amazon, and indeed I can find out hardly anything about it except the cast and director and that it was filmed in Georgia. So I can’t tell you when to expect it, though I look forward to it because I believe that film can really do this story justice, especially if the director was willing to seize on the plot and the magic realism in a way that Whitehead didn’t quite. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.