The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I wanted this book to be more. I thought its reputation meant it was more than just a time-passing novel, and perhaps it'd be something of a psychological dissection. Like, maybe this was the book that would get into the details and provide the palpable empathy of what it was like to be a slave, and further what it was like to participate in the actual underground railroad.

Maybe it'd describe the atrocities in independent and full color detail. Where a high school education might tell you that people were brutalized, dehumanized, whipped, lynched, etc. a novel has the potential to build a relationship between you and its characters, and then describe single events in gruesome detail. It's these single, specific descriptions that allow a reader to feel the situation, and hurdle over our own cognitive biases -- e.g., diffusion of responsibility, paradoxes of scale in empathy. e.g., see Dave Chappelle brief but powerful description of Emmett Till in I forget which one of his most recent comedy specials. His describing Emmett's mother's bravery and audaciousness is more moving than any third person generalization.

Or what about the complicated competing priorities of the slaves who didn't try to escape? The insidious push, at the threat of gun and whip, from thinking about progress and the future of a diverse community and rich culture, into thinking about the survival of single days and the humble maintenance of a forced ghetto. Viktor Frankl and Solzhenitsyn come to mind, and Cora could of been the equivalent for the partial genocide of African autonomy. "Partial", not in the sense of apologizing for the slavers by noting they weren't as greedy as they could've been, but "partial" because those people didn't manage to take all of Africa, when they sure as hell would of if they could. And also "partial" because of what they did take they weren't able to extinguish completely, the soul of those cultures being too strong to squash. It's this resilience that's interesting. That's the story. Instead, Cora is an outcast among outcasts. She makes her decisions in what seem like brief reflexive spurts, and thus doesn't represent any larger group or its hypothetical spirit of perseverance. Is this then meant to be the moral? I don't think so...

The Underground Railroad neither built those kind of relationships nor described those kind of details. 300 something pages later, I don't have any personal connection to Cora except for the sympathy I'd give to any human despicably treated.

Or maybe the book'd go into describing, in painful paradox, the kind of mental gymnastics that were needed by the white race of the time in order to justify such an absurd treachery as slavery. But not just in some caricatured political cartoon kind of way, but in the steel-man kind of way. Build up both sides of the argument, and lay the groundwork for empathy with the kind of (false) axioms that allowed slavery to be justified. Something like how the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment apply at scale to the times of slavery and the minds of the slavers. From that strong foothold, we can really dismantle and disempower the psychology that allows for racial prejudice.

Instead, you get a brief Scooby Doo description of a typical lazy-minded, all-too-comfortable, greedy set of villains. And obviously there were a lot of villains back then, but their characters were more complex than the dastardly drunk who liked to beat his property with a cane he carried for status instead of crutch, full stop. Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Django Unchained was both more sinister and more nuanced, and thus interesting, and that movie was meant to be an over the top drama, not a semi-historical fiction.

Ridgeway was the beginnings of such a sophisticated and explanative character, and the only one at that. Compare him to the Plantation owners themselves, who probably should've been such characters but were too busy whoring and drinking in single sentences, and yet Ridgeway also only showed his head (and what was inside of it) a handful of times.

Or maybe a description of the painful and conflicting ethics that must've tormented abolitionists trying to balance their responsibilities to themselves and their families over their responsibilities to doing Go(o)d's true work (e.g. ridding the world of slavery).

The attic owning family was so lightweight as to be a joke, Cora's time spent with them vaguely reminiscent of Anne Franke with so much less of the personal reflection that could've been used to build ties between Cora and the reader and describe the modernly impossible situation of that kind of confinement and lack of basic accommodation. Instead, rather than use Cora's confinement as a means for reflection, the author goes out of his way to have a literal hole in the wall that happens to point directly at more outside horror. Why even bother putting her in the confined attic then?

The background of Ethel and her husband's internal decision making was literally an afterthought of the entire scene, reduced to Ethel's petulant pouting about the entire scheme, and crazed disowning of the entire thing when faced with the potential of being murdered for her righteous but stigmatized participation; and her Husband's wanting to be like his daddy, whose (i.e. the daddy's) provided inspiration was summarized in a single page that started with him leading a typical and uneventful life, and ended in him admitting to his son on his deathbed that he was secret abolitionist all along and demanding he carry the torch. Wow! What a twist! Compelling stuff! Sigh...

Or maybe, make the book a disappointment to readers and demonstration of the true injustice of institutionalized slavery. Maybe Cora gets caught and actually sent back to the plantation, with no further description other than that she was received and the bounty paid, the magnitude and horror of her punishment left undescribed and thus boundless. The end. You thought this was an epic fairy tail? Real life is cold. Slaves and their descendants knew and know that, and it's about time you did too, reader.

But no, Cora ends up scott free after miraculously disarming her captor. Fine. This might work if the story were a testament to the efficacy of the actual underground railroad, as a reinforcement of historical fact...


Just for a fantastical spin? This seemed like an arbitrary and pointless fictional plot device injected into an otherwise based-on-the-truth story. It neither (a) acted as a hypothetical for what could've been if the railroad were literally more efficient and thus effective, perhaps then contrasting this alternative reality against actuality in an interesting way that'd inspire the reader to think differently (e.g. have faith in future grassroots organization when faced with overwhelming adversity). But the railroad wasn't any faster and didn't have any more throughput. So dead end there.

And nor did it (b) iconify the power of the in-real-life railroad of people. Further, the mystery surrounding the in-book railroad wasn't described or explained or related to anything, save one spineless piece of zen-style wit-by-ambiguity, "no one knows who laid the tracks", "we all laid the tracks", "the tracks were in our head all along". Is the camera going to pan out to Mr. Rogers closing the hardcover and saying goodbye?

The only result I can see following this whimsical addition is that some less familiar future reader takes it as actual, factual reference; and walks away thinking that's how the world was.

What a frustrating and seemingly punchless gimmick. Especially so because, to someone with an interest in serious science fiction and the self-consistency it requires, it's such a ridiculous and unserious premise in the first place. Here I am trying to hold the entire social dynamic of slaves and slave owners and abolitionists in my head all at the same time, while simultaneously knowing one of the pervasive psychological and sociological tensions of the era is the fact that the slaves outnumber the white public, slave owners and non-, and that they, the slaves, might revolt in organized mass at any moment, and the whites don't know how much potential is in that powder keg, and the slaves... who knows what they think, 'cause that's left undescribed as well, the story focusing more on a handful of loaner individuals...

And both in the book and in reality, the slaves didn't revolt in mass, which is perhaps a tragedy in itself, and the book goes out of its way to note this very fact. But then it goes ahead and adds this arbitrary piece of fiction -- that the railroad was actual tracks and steam engines -- implying that the very same people who couldn't or wouldn't revolt, for whatever reason, could organize and fund a massive engineering project -- laying a literal railroad -- a project which requires much more capital and motivation and secrecy as, say, putting together a machete wielding militia and a corresponding strategy to emancipate their brothers and sisters or die trying.

Not to mention the fact that the slave catchers and reactionary nationalists are constantly and fruitlessly looking for the railroad, which is kept hidden by people's cellars and bushes and welcome mats, but they can't hear steam engines working underground in the middle of the night...

But, Adam, it's a novel. Suspension of disbelief. The symbolism is more important than the mechanics... Except, as I said, there wasn't any functional symbolism I could detect, and you shouldn't make such consolations of consistency if, without them, you could achieve the same thing.

The author unwittingly introduced two huge deus ex machinas-- one for the slaves to revolt with and one for the racists to dominate with -- and then didn't use either. Grrrrr.

For what it was worth, I did find myself appropriately disgusted at the atrocity of slavery and the briefly described specific sins that were committed onto Cora and others. But I felt these emotions no more than when I learned the basics of slavery in high school, or after watching any decent, honorable movie whose setting took place back then. But I give myself more credit for providing the required imagination than to the work for providing adequate illustration.

You're better off reading Fredrick Douglas directly than expecting much from this book.