This Underground Railroad is Actually Underground

I was pleasantly surprised (and pleasantly horrified) by Colson Whitehead's novel The Underground Railroad . . . I assumed that because of all the critical praise the book received (and because of the content) that reading it would be like eating fiber, good for you but no fun, but I was very wrong; Whitehead starts with the childhood conceit that the underground railroad is actually an underground railroad, and in the spirit of the magical realists, he makes you buy his fantasy . . . and in between the dream-like underground journeys on the train, the main character Cora-- a runaway slave-- who suffered abominably on the plantation and witnessed things even worse than she endured, finds herself in a fragmented variegated mainly hostile country; each stop on her journey is insidiously evil in it's own unique way; there are scenes reminiscent of the Tuskegee experiment, Anne Frank's captivity, Flannery O'Connor's Gothic South, and the stereotypical Southern plantation . . . and the common thread that unites this ugly patchwork of loosely connected territories of racism and abuse, is the slave-hunter Ridgeway and his odd companion/slave Homer, an educated and erudite miniature lackey on a bizarre epic journey far from his African-American roots, making his way in the only way that he can, betraying his people in order to thrive and survive; the book certainly evokes the state of our country today: fragmented, unsympathetic and divisive, and the theme is ominous-- perhaps only a civil war and the consequent reconstruction can mend the rips and tears in the fabric of our nation . . . but despite this heaviness, the novel is a damned good read . . . horrific, hallucinatory, compelling, and epic by turns, and just when you think you can't take it any longer, when you've entered the broken mind of the slave and see no escape from the shackles and chains, then the plot takes off and you're on the train, underground, excited to poke your head above ground in some new place, with some new tone and tenor, possibly better than what came before.

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