The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead is on a media tear with this book. So reviews, coverage, interviews are aplenty. My favorite piece, pegged on the release of this book, is Kathryn Schulz’s essay in the New Yorker. In it, she describes, through her usual deep historical research and captivating writing, many realities about the Underground Railroad. That it was, in fact, probably not very regularly used. That it does more for myth-making, absolving white guilt, turning attention to individual actors instead of institutions and providing moral comfort for Americans than it ever did for the slaves who putatively used it in the 19th century. It’s a great companion to this book.

Whitehead’s book is a good addition to the set of literature about this topic. His writing - probably the best feature of this book - is sharp, emotional, shocking, literary, and requires your undivided attention. This is not a book that washes over you with ease. It is a book that requires you to do work as you read. What James McBride did for the run-away-slave narrative with humor and satire, Whitehead does with imaginative fiction and character building. The Good Lord Bird was satirical, funny, tongue-in-cheek and Underground Railroad is serious, literary and emotionally relentless. The balance between plot, character, and environment is finely tuned.

The promise of the premise - an actual railroad running underground through states that represent different modes of America dealing with slaves and black Americans - pays off through great writing, full characters and a plot worthy of its premise.