Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson WhiteheadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 306
Published by Doubleday Books on August 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor - engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven - but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

My Review:

As the saying goes, “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” The Underground Railroad is definitely that kind of book. These specific events didn’t happen to this particular person, and yet, they all happened, all too frequently, to entirely too many people who had but one thing in common with Cora – the color of their skin.

The story in The Underground Railroad is historical fiction mixed with a bit of magical realism. The real, historical, Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad with rails and steam engines under the ground. The secret train with its hidden stations makes for a powerful metaphor for the vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape from the South’s “Peculiar Institution” to the theoretically “free” states of the North. Or to Canada.

Cora’s journey parallels many such real journeys, from the plantation in Georgia where she was born to her long and often desperate flight to freedom, endlessly pursued by the slave-catcher Ridgeway.

As she travels, she finds herself in different places, and in each she discovers a different way in which she, and her people, are not truly free of subjugation and hatred, even if it briefly appears so.

And while, again, the locations and the methods were not exactly in use in each specific place at that particular time, all these things really happened to real people just like Cora.

Her journey is one of continual loss, with the tantalizing hope of freedom always just out of reach, even when it seems most closely present. Her story is often grueling, and frequently heartbreaking. As each chance for hope and happiness is snatched away, we shake our heads and quake in anger, incensed that this is the way it was.

And this is the way, in so many ways, it still is. Slavery casts a long shadow, not just on those who suffered it directly, and those who perpetrated it and tried to perpetuate it, but on everything and everyone it touched. Even today.

Escape Rating B+: This is a hard story to read. We want to say, I want to say, that this treatment was beyond unjust, and that it couldn’t happen here. But we know from history that it most certainly did happen. And that its legacy is still with us.

The perspective in the story is that of Cora, a young woman born in slavery who decides to escape at whatever cost – because even though she knows that even the attempt is a death sentence if she fails – staying on the plantation is a sentence of immediate death in utter torment. There is no sugar-coating of the terrible conditions of slavery. Nor should there be.

But Cora is a difficult protagonist. Her story often feels as if it is being told at one remove. While we are outraged at everything that happens to her, we don’t always feel with her. She seems a bit detached, and so are we. There’s a part of me that believes that her detachment was part of her means of survival, but it makes her a sometimes cold character to follow.

Like the Railroad itself, each stage of her journey is a metaphor for one of the varying, but equally awful, ways that whites thought of blacks in the 19th century and believed that they were finding ways to deal with “the problem”. The most supposedly “enlightened” solutions contained some of the truest brutality, and the most overtly brutal enslaved everyone it touched, white as well as black, but in different ways. Even the “Free” North can’t bear the thought of a self-sufficient black community, as it gives the lie to all the stories they have told.

There are no easy answers in this book. The ending is not a happy redemption of anyone, more like a hope for a possible better future somewhere down the line. But we’re not there yet.

Sometimes a book sweeps all the awards, and one is left wondering why. The Underground Railroad is not one of those books. This is one that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, fantasy, horror, magical realism
Pages: 178
Published by William Morrow Books on June 18th 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

My Review:

If the man who is never named, who may be someone not dissimilar to the author, returns to that ocean at the end of that lane so that Lettie can see if her sacrifice was worth it, readers are left with the certainty that it was.

If only that so we can read this strange and marvelous story that has bits of fantasy, parts of horror, and a few things that go bump in the night. Along with the sense both that we never quite grow up, and that the bits and pieces we remember of our childhoods do not necessarily resemble what actually happened.

And probably shouldn’t.

From one perspective, this story is relatively simple. A man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, and in his grief he finds himself wandering back to the places he knew as a child.

Much of his childhood has been torn down, and this is not surprising, it happens to all of us as we reach middle-age. But one place is still standing, because it is a place that has always been standing, and possibly always will be, even after the rest of us have turned to dust.

It is the place where the narrator experienced something both wonderful and terrible, an experience that was awful both in the sense that it was a horrible thing to have happen , and in its original sense, that it was full of awe. But it was an experience that his seven-year-old self wasn’t ready to experience, and one that his ordinary self is unable to remember.

Except when he returns, as he sometimes does, to remember what really happened and to give an accounting of his life to the one person who made it all possible.

And it’s magic.

Escape Rating A: Fair warning, this is going to be one of those reviews where I mostly talk about how the book made me feel. I’m not sure there is any other way to approach it.

Although most of the events being recounted happened to the protagonist when he was seven, this is an adult book. It is the man looking back on those events, and recognizing that there are things he knows now that he didn’t know then. And sometimes vice-versa.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story that will either charm you and draw you in, or it won’t. It is also not quite what you might be expecting. There is a sense that it is fantasy, a possibility that it is horror, and even a chance that everything the author thinks he remembers is mostly a story that he tells himself rather than events that he actually remembers.

There are readers, who will be turned off by the child’s perspective, and there are readers who will be turned off by the fantasy elements that are inserted into the real world. Obviously, I wasn’t one of them. I found the sense that he was telling the story to himself added to the magic. It felt like a memory of the things you think you see out of the corner of your eyes – or when when you turn suddenly and what you thought was there seemingly isn’t.

This is also one of those stories that when you finish, you look back at what you read and are forced to view it in an entirely different way because of what you have learned. One of the ways in which the author turns this trope on its head is that while the reader ends with enough knowledge to re-evaluate the whole story, the protagonist forgets all that he has learned. Again.

What he experienced, what he learned, is too magical, too real, to exist in the mundane world. But it is such an important part of what made him who he is that it is necessary, every once in awhile, that he come to Lettie’s Ocean to remember it all over again.

And as the reader, I am very grateful for that.

If you believe that the world is much, much stranger than it seems, and that there are forces both wondrous and terrible still lurking in its hidden corners, this book is an incredible, and intense, treat.

Ocean
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