Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Underground Railroad

I always struggle with Colson Whitehead’s novels, and I continue to do so with this book, The Underground Railroad, which landed the author the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  His novels leave me with the sense that there was more to do with the story, and he failed to seize that ground.

There is no doubt that a great talent had created this novel.  The story begins with a  familiar sense of things in the antebellum south, but soon changes to a strange sort of parallel world – familiar but out of order.  Whitehead preforms this feat well.

Whitehead is condensing the history of race in America in this story, presenting us, without regard to historical order, the impact of race in American life.  Yet, what Whitehead’s characters say about race often isn’t all that new, or presented in an engaging way.  Take this quote:

“America… is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

This is true, all of it, and in the hands of a lesser writer, just fine.  But this book won two prestigious awards.  I wanted the author to provide a searing view of race in America.  But often, the language just falls back on words and themes we already know. So, for me, once again, Whitehead has not seized all the ground available. This makes The Underground Railroad a gripping and intriguing novel but far from a masterpiece.

No comments:

Post a Comment