Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Underground Railroad

Review a black American author’s work that you think a white person would love.

by Dietrich

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a gripping tale of escape from slavery in the deep south. It’s set before the civil war and looks at the network of black and white activists who helped slaves escape northward.

The story follows young Cora as she escapes along with other slaves from a Georgia cotton plantation, then tries to elude slave-catchers, patrollers, lynch mobs and informers. The almost-impossible pursuit takes readers from Georgia, through South and North Carolina, to Tennessee and Indiana. Cora runs for her life, finding a little help along the way, escaping through a series of rail tunnels, hiding for days in the dark under trapdoors, or in the attics of safe houses and barns, among the rats and bugs, with little water or anything to eat. Although it’s a book of fiction, one realizes the mountain of injustice she escapes and encounters has been ripped right from the history books.

The story’s told in Colson Whitehead’s powerful, matter-of-fact narrative, one that conveys the horrors of slavery and the daily brutality of life on the plantation that she escapes from. Here’s a passage that I think conveys the flavor of Colson’s voice and style:

“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the Freeman had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn't understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn't understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom.”

In the telling, the author both shocks the reader with the savagery of those times, and he gives cause to think of the imprint that those times have left these many decades later.

A couple of other books worth noting here are Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. It was the first time out for Mosley’s low key black detective Easy Rawlins, a good place to start if you haven’t read any of the series. And another one to check out is Half-Blood Blues by Canadian author Esi Edugyan. It’s the story of a black jazz band who flee Berlin at the rise of the second world war. Many years later the surviving members of the group reunite for a reunion, looking back at those times.

And still, other great black American authors come to mind: Delia Owens, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. And of course, there’s our very own Danny Gardner who wrote A Negro and an Ofay. If you haven’t read it, hurry up because Danny’s got a sequel coming out later this year; it’s called The Tales of Elliot Caprice: Ace Boon Coon.


Susan C Shea said...

Good recommendations, thanks. And I'm also looking forward to Danny's next crime novel.

Terry said...

I loved all of these books. Good call.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Susan and Terry.

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