Monday, March 20, 2023

the last book I read

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Cora's life seems pretty sweet, on the face of it*, if by sweet you mean relentlessly shitty and brutal. Born into slavery on the Randall plantation in Georgia, as was her mother Mabel before her, after her grandmother Ajarry was kidnapped and transported from Africa to America, Cora lives with a group of other slaves and works in the cotton fields. The slaves are kept fed and sheltered, after a fashion, but woe betide you if you fail to harvest your allotted amount of cotton, talk back to the white masters or try to escape.

Escape certainly seems like a pretty appealing option given the unrelenting hardship of day-to-day life, but the risks are appalling - a crack team of slave-catchers is just waiting to be unleashed and if you are caught you will be brought back to the plantation and executed in an appallingly protracted and public fashion pour encourager les autres

As it happens Cora's mother, Mabel, escaped from the plantation ten years or so previously and, despite the best efforts of elite slave-catcher Ridgeway and his men, was never caught. When her fellow slave Caesar comes to her and suggests an escape bid she is initially resistant but eventually agrees, and they set out across the swamps in the dead of night.

Caesar has been in touch with agents of the Underground Railroad, in real 19th-century America a network of safe routes for escaping slaves, but as depicted here an actual physical railroad with trains and tunnels and people maintaining secret stations in slave states. Cora and Caesar hook up with a sympathetic farmer who has access to an underground station and ride the rails up to South Carolina. 

Meanwhile, back at the plantation, Cora and Caesar's absence is swiftly noted and the slave-catchers sent after them, a team led by Ridgeway who is taking a personal interest in retrieving Cora after a rare failure in the pursuit of her mother. Cora and Caesar have found refuge in South Carolina, though, which operates a much more liberal regime, former slaves being provided with housing and gainful employment while, yes, technically still being owned by the state, but, hey, who's counting? And it's better than being back in Georgia swinging from a rope, right? Pay no attention to the medical staff taking blood samples for no apparent reason and the strong encouragement for black women to consent to being sterilised. I mean, it's for your own convenience - the state doing you a favour, when you think about it. 

Cora is starting to smell a rat when the decision to move on is taken for her - she gets wind of slave-catchers making enquiries and flees to the house of the local station agent for the Underground Railroad. And not before time as they are hot on her tail and burn the house down, leaving her to board the next available train and get off at the next available stop, which happens to be a partly-abandoned station in North Carolina. Well, North Carolina will be pretty much like South Carolina, right? Only, you know, further north and all. Well, not a bit of it as they have decided the whole slavery thing is just too much trouble and decided on a policy of just exterminating black people wholesale and instead shipping in Irish and Italians to do the menial jobs the slaves formerly did. Having been rescued by the station agent, Martin, a rather unlikely and reluctant hero, having inherited the job from his father, Cora is obliged to endure a miserable few months hiding in the attic of his house while awaiting an opportunity to escape. Eventually the inevitable happens and one of the neighbours denounces Martin and his wife Ethel to the authorities, Ridgeway and his henchmen turn up at the house, throw Cora in the back of the cart to be returned to Georgia and cart Martin and Ethel off to be summarily hanged. 

In some ways the fact that it was Ridgeway who was on hand to make the arrest is a good thing for Cora, as if it had been one of the local goons she would probably have been strung up and set on fire there and then. On the other hand now she has to endure a long and uncomfortable cross-country slog back to her old plantation with the likelihood of a more protracted and public death at the end of it. Fate intervenes, though, when, after they have crossed into Tennessee, the cart is held up by a group of black men who rescue Cora and leave Ridgeway and his men tethered with their own chains.

Cora, the group leader, Royal, and the others make their way (via the Underground Railroad) to Indiana, another (ostensibly at least) more liberal state, and take refuge at the farm of John Valentine, along with a host of other waifs and strays and runaways. Useful work is provided, there is an extensive library, Cora and Royal begin a tentative romance, all seems calm. But even here there is discontent, not so much internally to the farm but among their predominantly white neighbours. This big black community is all very well, you know, but all that fancy book-learnin' might give them ideas. And the next thing you know they'll be round here cutting our throats and defiling our daughters. Maybe it'd be better on the whole to have a bit of regrettable but necessary unpleasantness and rid ourselves of them. 

And so a mob descends on the Valentine farm, bent on general mayhem and destruction, except for the persistent Mr. Ridgeway who only has eyes for Cora, and, once he has captured her, the location of the Underground Railroad. Cora takes him to the nearest station she knows, under a remote barn rumoured to be the terminus of a long-abandoned branch line to who knows where. With the last of her strength she grapples Ridgeway off the rickety stairway down to the platform and, as he lies wounded on the ground, limps off down the tunnel. After an unknowable amount of time in the darkness she emerges near a road and hitches a ride on a wagon headed for Missouri and then west to California.

The history of slavery in the United States has, unsurprisingly, been a rich subject for various forms of art. Notable similarities with The Underground Railroad can be found in parts of Beloved, for instance, and some of it will seem familiar to anyone who's seen 12 Years A Slave. The principal difference is the conceit of having the railroad be an actual physical thing, rather than a metaphor. This provides an odd juxtaposition with the gritty realism of what's going on generally, since a) it's not an actual thing that ever existed and b) a moment's thought will make the whole thing fall apart. Leave aside that it's inconceivable that the stations would not have been found and the rails made impassable, where did all the metal come from? Didn't someone notice entire locomotives going missing? How did they stop the tunnels from falling in? What about ventilation? Wouldn't it be literally impossible to cope with the changes in elevation for an underground railway on a bigger scale than, say, a single city? Clearly all of these things are trivially true, but the idea presumably is that you hold one part of the book (the gritty realist bits) in one part of your mind and the other (the bits featuring the railroad) in another, and apply slightly different rules to each. Whether you can do that or find that the two parts rub together in an uncomfortable way is probably just a matter of taste, and of how much of a tedious literalist you are. It should be noted that quite a few of Colson Whitehead's earlier works have a fantastical and/or speculative element to them as well. My personal feeling is that while I did find the friction between the two elements occasionally troublesome, it didn't detract from the overall effect, which, I should make clear, was tremendously impressive. 

Other people who were tremendously impressed included the Pulitzer Prize committee for 2017, which makes The Underground Railroad the second novel I've read in 2023 to have received it, the other being The Overstory. Perhaps it's time for a recap of my Pulitzer list, which goes as follows: 1928, 1940, 1953, 1961, 1981, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2017, 2019. It also won the National Book Award the previous year; my updated list here goes: 1958, 1962, 1965, 1980 (paperback), 1988, 1993, 2001, 2016.

* I promise this is the last time I will do this

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