I don’t often read literary fiction. Most of my reviews are of mystery novels, fantasy, adventure, or anything else that is strong on story and light on thinking. But in the last few weeks I have read two novels that have really made me think ‘big’ ideas. The first of these is Whitehead’s latest novel, superficially about the experience of slavery in 19th century America, but really about how humanity treats those who are different.
Cora, our protagonist, is a young slave on a plantation in the South. Her mother ran away when she was a young child and she was raised by her grandmother whose philosophy was ‘don’t make a fuss and you will be alright’. After her grandmother dies, Cora tries to live by this ideal, but circumstances conspire against her. Circumstances and her own sense of justice. So about the time that she gets noticed by the Manager, she is approached by Caesar, who asks her to join him on the Underground Railroad, an escape route to the north.
In Whitehead’s world, the Underground Railroad is much more than the series of safe houses and guides that history tells us. Here each safe house leads to a platform, station, rails and locomotives. Cora and Caesar escape and begin an incredible journey, stopping in several locations, each with a radically different relationship with slaves/freemen/people of colour. At each place Cora interacts with some individuals for a time, and gradually comes to recognise the truth about each relationship.
Unsurprisingly this was recommended by Oprah’s Book Club. In the States, where society is still struggling with the after effects of slavery, this book could become an important cultural landmark. But why bother to read such an ‘American” novel if you live anywhere else in the world? Simply because this book is more about how humanity treats those who look or think differently. Whitehead’s world could be uncomfortably similar to where we live now. And that bears thinking about.
4 1/2 stars