Book Review: The Underground Railroad

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Colson Whitehead makes the underground railroad literal in this fictional account of slavery. In the story, it is an actual network of railroad tunnels taking runaway slaves north. The novel starts in early 1800s Georgia, USA and follows the life of a young slave girl named Cora. Whitehead is an African-American and each state Cora goes through during her escape is a commentary on a different aspect of slavery. Ranging from North Carolina, where African Americans are wiped out in a genocide to South Carolina, where they are helped to rehabilitate from slavery, but also black women are coerced to undergo voluntary birth control.

The graphic (I hope historically accurate) violent depiction of slavery really made me realize the  true horror of slavery in the USA. Combined with Quentin Tarantino’s Django, I now understand the brutality of capturing, transporting and putting Africans to work in America in the 19th century. I think it also hurt southern white culture as well. Treating fellow human beings like that has to do something to one’s soul.

The book kept my attention throughout, with a good mix of action and plot development with Whitehead’s messages he wanted to put forth regarding slavery and race. The book had special resonance this year with a divisive election and discussions of race.

The story also made me ponder the economics of cotton. Because the production of cotton, tobacco, indigo and other subtropical plants was so labor intensive, plantation owners felt they needed slaves to make a living. Whitehead proposes using poor Irish immigrants for 2 years at a time to work on the plantations before getting their own piece of land. I wonder if slavery was necessary. I know this happened in other places as well. Even here in Singapore where I am staying for the New Years, there are lots of Chinese and Indians who originally came to work here as coolies, however they came as poor immigrants, not as slaves, which is different. My ancestors were escaping poverty and oppression from Poland to come to the USA for a new life. They had a tough go of it in the coal mines, winter forests and steel mills of Pennsylvania and Michigan, but not to the extent of African slaves.

The novel gets a thumbs up from me and I highly recommend it.

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