“You need to be strong to survive the labor and to make us greater. We fatten hogs, not because it pleases us but because we need hogs to survive. But we can’t have you too clever. We can’t have you so fit you outrun us.”
Author: Colson Whitehead
Category: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: August 2nd, 2016
This isn’t my “usual” genre and I guess it kind of shows. This book did almost nothing for me.
I like the premise. Pre-Civil War Georgia; a runaway slave; the metaphorical underground railroad made literal. Lots of potential, right?
But man, I had some trouble getting through this one. I felt like the pacing was uneven and honestly, I just couldn’t really bring myself to care about the characters.
Most of the book was told from Cora’s point of view but it would switch to other’s sometimes. The most common secondary point of view was Ridgeway, the slave catcher. I didn’t mind his point of view but I really did not care about him. I didn’t find him to be all that interesting and was bored to tears reading his chapters for the most part.
Any other points of view were one-off chapters; I can only think of three off the top of my head and only one of them really seemed to fit the story for me and that was a chapter about Cora’s mom, Mabel.
There was a chapter centered on Ceasar, the slave that Cora runs away with. This chapter was just so awkward to me because it was placed toward the middle-end of the book and covered his point of view for things that happened at the beginning of the book but really added nothing that Cora’s POV didn’t cover.
The last one was from the point of view of a doctor that Cora encounters and I can kind of see the purpose in having his backstory but, again, everything that his chapter covered was covered, and more impactfully, by other events in Cora’s POV.
I wanted to but I couldn’t make any connection with her beyond her being a representative of an American slave. I do not at all deny that many of the things that happened to her and that she learned about happening to other black people were horrific. In a way, that was probably the part of the book that I liked the best in that it was eye-opening.
As a society as a whole, I think it is not very well remembered just how deep racism ran in the United States. We remember that some people were (and in some twisted minds, still are) viewed as inferior based on skin color but reading the justifications that were used to promote that belief are kind of astounding. Everything from bringing in “science” (“their brains are made for servitude”) to religion (“if God didn’t want the n*****s to be slaves, he would make it so”). Even amongst those that claimed to be allies of freemen and ex-slaves participated and encouraged a system that revealed that they didn’t truly see them as fully “human” at all.
Bringing the “underground railroad” metaphor to life sounds like a really cool concept in theory. They way that it worked out here though was really nothing more than a cheap plot device to make the story move faster.
All in all, I liked the subject of this book but some style choices and, frankly, blah writing has me kind of wondering why it got so popular.