At our March video chat, we discussed The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. From cotton plantations in Georgia to a wagon enroute to Indiana, we follow the story of Cora, born into enslavement. Her mother Mabel abandoned her to escape to the north; chased by a slave catcher hired by the Plantation owner but never recaptured. Cora, alone and apart from the other enslaved workers, is angry that her mother abandoned her. Through her eyes we experience the depravity and horrors of plantation life. And so far, this seems much like other narratives that we have read – of the horrors of slavery and the efforts to escape enslavement. But to read at this superficial level also creates confusion and misses the author’s message. Colson writes in a genre called magic realism, a realistic narrative and technique is combined with surreal elements of fantasy or dream. Hence the description of the Underground railroad as an actual railroad, tracks running through tunnels dug by escaped and emancipated blacks and their allies. The train is a steam engine pulling flat cars or old carriage cars and driven from station-to-station platform, picking up runaways who have been helped and guided by station masters. The actual Underground Railroad was a loose connection of escape routes which relied on the assistance of many individuals who risked much to hide, feed and guide escapees to the next safe house/barn/church. He also introduces events that actually happened but at completely different times, such as the Syphilis study – doctors charting the progress of untreated syphilis in black men which is known as the Tuskegee Study and which began in 1932. He also refers to the forced sterilization of women, a Eugenics policy which continues to the present. Cora observes that “her oppressors in some ways were prisoners like she was, shackled to fear”. Having imported and enslaved so many Africans, the white population began to fear that they would be outnumbered and turned to using poor Irish emigrants as replacement labour in many areas. Such dehumanizing practices, typified by the slave-catcher referring to his captives as ‘it’ reach into current times and events. Whitehead’s thesis seems to be that fear – fear of being supplanted by black and brown people, defining others by the colour of their skin; fear of change and their place in that change – that fear is still driving the current rise in overt racism and attacks on people of colour.
This is not an easy read, but one well worth doing. It will raise questions and provoke thought. Not a bad thing.
A TV series based on the book will be aired on Amazon Prime, May 14, 2021. For more information on Ontario’s role in the Underground Railroad, go to Https://www.heritagetrust.on.ca/en/pages/our-stories/slavery-to-freedomm/history/theundergroundrailroad.
(image reproduced with permission Penguin Random House)
And here is a recommended reads available from the Hamilton Public Library. To borrow it or place a reserve, go to https://hpl.bibliocommons.com .
All the Devils are Here by Louise Penny. The latest in the Three Pines series finds Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache in Paris to visit their son Daniel, his wife and 2 daughters and their daughter Anny, her husband Jean Guy Beauvoir (Gamache’s former 2nd in Command at the Sûreté du Québec) and to await the imminent birth of Anny and Jean Guy’s daughter. They meet for dinner and are accompanied by Armand’s godfather and dear friend, billionaire Stephen Horowitz. As they stroll after dinner, Horowitz is run down in an obvious attempt on his life. He is sent to hospital clinging to life. The story unfolds with intrigue, industrial espionage and nefarious dealings – all against the backdrop of Paris. As always, Gamache has us guessing, apparently having reached one solution to the mystery – and then surprising us. A rewarding read.
Note: The bookmobile will be at Eastwood Park on Thursdays from 4:30 to 5:00. There will be no access to the bookmobile to browse, but staff will be on hand for contactless returns and holds pickup.
Have you read any of our recommendations? Liked any of the same books we talked about or disagreed totally? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org .