Whitehead, Colson: The Underground Railroad

The  proposer indicated that the author was a highly regarded African-American writer who had written six novels and two books of non fiction. The Underground Railroad had won the 2016 National Book Award and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The members of the book group broadly appreciated and enjoyed the book. It was written in an interesting and individual style. The jumping around of the narrative was disconcerting at first but became familiar and acceptable.

The scenes of slavery in action were vivid and sensational. The individual slaves, particularly Cora, were well portrayed.  Ridgeway was also an interesting, obsessive and complex character. In many ways he epitomised the American belief in manifest destiny, the right to take over the North American continent at the expense of others, the British, Spanish/Mexican, Native and African Americans. 

Man’s inhumanity to man was well displayed in the novel. Despite the subject matter and its American origins the novel was not sentimental. Indeed the tone had shades of lightness and humour.

The concept of a literal underground railroad was regarded as powerful by some but others thought it undermined the credibility of the novel. There were also concerns that some of the scenes were over sensationalised, for example the attack on the black farm in Indiana. The ending was seen by some as also detracting from the credibility of the novel. 

One member indicated he found it difficult to suspend disbelief for historical novels that departed too much from the historical record though another member queried whether the book was a historical novel at all. It had magic realism aspects; Gullivers’ Travels and Science Fiction novels came to mind. 

Inevitably the group discussed historical aspects of slavery, particularly in the United States.

It was argued that while white southerners were understandably portrayed as racists all Americans were implicated in the system of slavery which was built into the US Constitution. This required all Americans to return fugitive slaves to their owners in the slave states. The US economy as a whole was dependent on slavery. Abolitionists were a small minority in the North, much as contemporary Americans might wish otherwise.

Only a minority of fugitive slaves used the underground railroad, mainly from the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky. Most fleeing slaves went to Mexican territories and there were free slave settlements in Texas and New Mexico. There had also been many risings by slaves against the whites, the Nat Turner one in Virginia in the 1830s being a famous example.

Interestingly many black Americans who had gone north in the past were now returning to their old homeland in the south.  One member who had recently been in the southern states argued that the South was coming to terms well with the slavery past; he instanced a number of civil rights museums he had visited in the region.    

It was pointed out that in most of history, conquering societies had made their defeated opponents into slaves. African societies were no different and had captured their enemies and sold them to white slave traders for conveyance to the Americas. Slavery still existed even in contemporary western society, albeit more concealed, for sexual and labour purposes. 

Overall the large number- 10- of members present much enjoyed the novel which had stimulated a very good discussion.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead