I have been very neglectful with my Book Club Blog and for that I apologise, but I am back and will do my up most to keep this blog updated from now on!! Sitting here with my new hip and limited movement, I thought that I would have hours to spare to update the pages and blog to my heart’s content but it is surprising how busy one can be with limited movement!! (Prison Break Season 1 2 3 and 4 come to mind , but, there, I digress!!)
Last Tuesday at Book Club The Underground Railway was the chosen read for the month of April and therefore the topic of discussion. Naturally, cheese, bread, crackers, savouries, cake, flapjacks and wine were an added bonus!
After in length discussions on hip replacements and Brazil (me deliberating the former and Kate the latter after her awesome and recent trip to South America) we finally got round to the book. Personally, I found The Underground Railroad a difficult read and the subject of much debate. It was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone, and I use ‘enjoyed’ lightly due to the subject matter, but there were lots of conflicting and difference of opinions thrown around during the evening. The book is a very cleverly written saga about slavery in all its brutal forms, its extreme brutality and its survival and consequences. Lots of issues were discussed including the following among many others: –
Would it have been better written in the 1st person rather than the 3rd?
How enjoyable was Whitehead’s style of writing?
How exactly did we interpreted the underground railroad?
How well-developed were his characters?
What was Mabel’s role in the story?
Is there a correlation between this story and society today?
The book cleverly crosses the genres of historic and literary fiction, and there is plenty of social justice narration. It is a book with big ideas and daring commentary which keeps you questioning your beliefs about race, freedom and, as a Brit, what you really know of ‘The American Dream’ and American history, in fact, it can be linked to any exploitation, any time, anywhere. Having lived in the South of the US for a number of years I felt that I could relate some parts of the writing to the life I experienced back in the 80s in the seep south. And a part that hit home were these words from the book – “And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, or its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.” Food for thought there!
Personally, I struggled to finish the book, but you must persevere to the penultimate chapter, ‘Mabel’, to finally feel some emotion that I believed the book lacked ( and by the way, on the subject of lack of emotion, I believe out of our group, I was a lone voice!) I am not saying that it was devoid of emotion of any kind, as Cora, the protagonist of this story faces more tragedy than any human being should ever have to experience in a lifetime, but I did not bond with her. I did not feel for her or Caesar, come to that. I would have liked to have read and experienced her story as seen through her eyes and therefore written in the 1st person rather than the 3rd would have been my preference. Yes Cora suffers. She is a teenage slave who runs away from the plantation in Georgia she’s been sold to and embarks on this journey of terror to find freedom and when she finds it, like any other, she will do anything so that she will never have to go back. But I felt no form of empathy or concern for her and Ceasar, unfortunately and when Caesar disappeared half way through with no clear explanation for his disappearance, it didn’t seem to matter. Also, if you are expecting to know more about the Underground Railroad itself then be prepared to be disappointed as it is not incorporate into the story as one would have maybe hoped. The title is rather deceptive there.
For the most part the story is written chronologically but Colson does tend to jump back to the past on occasions which made the narrative rather disjointed, in my opinion. The bumpy ride is a bit of a roller coaster and, like the railway, takes us into unexpected directions. We meet many strong, brave, hunted, hounded, evil, despicable characters on the journey but also a number of ancillary characters, who seem out of place at the time of meeting and easily forgotten until we revisit them as we progress through the story. It is a powerful and at times brutal story depicting the harsh treatment of slaves and a culmination of history from the sterilization of women to the development of the Klan. It is devastating and it is provocative. It leaves you feeling uncomfortable. It is thought-provoking and a great book choice for a book club as it certainly sparks off some great discussions. I always wonder at the ways individuals can interpret a common read in so many different ways. That is the beauty of Book Club!
‘The Underground Railroad’ is a recommended read by us all ( me too, believe it or not!) but it has so much to unpack that this one-sided review by me alone can’t do it justice. Hopefully, some of the club members will write their side of the discussion in the comment below and I would love to hear from you too, so please leave your comments below for discussion. Thank you.
Before leaving I have included some articles for you to read and a video of Colson Whithead himself talking about his little gem of a book.