Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

We picked The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead for our book club and while everyone seemed to find the book interesting and innovative, I don't think any of us LOVED it.
So the main innovative part of the book is the idea that the Underground Railroad is an actual, real set of secret train tracks that run under the Earth, built by slave hands for slaves to reach freedom.  And then we follow one main person do just that. 

I learned a lot, I really did. I think Whitehead did a masterful job of that really hard thing to do in historical fiction in which he weaves in facts and historical figures in a way that's subtle, but real.  I learned lots of slang used by slaves, lots of important black historical figures in the late 1700s, and the various ways of torture used by slaveowners to keep slaves under control. I learned about the hierarchical nature of slave communities and the communication network among slaves.

But man, the main character was just so confusing. She seemed cold and distant and maybe I could buy that. The people she cares for keep being taken away from her, over and over again, and I definitely could see myself shutting down if that happened to me. But then there are scenes in which she emotes so physically that people around her actually know more about her than the readers. It was clinical in a way that made me turn off the feelings part of my brain and turn on the academic side of my brain. I started taking notes on words I didn't know, historical details that were interesting, and just stopped caring about what actually happened to the main character.

I actually think The Intuitionist, which is the only other Whitehead novel I've read, was much more interesting. I didn't know what I thought of The Intuitionist, but I thought A LOT about it after I read it. I honestly still think about it sometimes. I finished The Underground Railroad a week before my book club and I honestly had to give myself a refresher on it before I went because once I shut the cover of it, I just stopped thinking about it.  So I don't know if I'm a Whitehead fan, but I can certainly appreciate his historical fiction/magical realism even if I don't think the characters are drawn as well as I want them to be. 

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