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[BC] March 18: The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

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[BC] March 18: The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

Post by Hera [Sammy] » Tue Mar 06, 2018 8:21 am

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Happy March, everyone! Our book for this month is...

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
Book Blurb
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor - engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven - but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
About the Author
Colson Whitehead (born November 6, 1969) is an American novelist. He is the author of six novels, including his debut work, the 1999 novel The Intuitionist, and The Underground Railroad (2016), for which he won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He has also published two books of non-fiction. In 2002, he received a MacArthur Fellowship ("Genius Grant").

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Otherwise... good luck to us all! Fingers crossed for this being a good choice.
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Re: [BC] March: The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

Post by Hades [Forge] » Wed Mar 14, 2018 3:51 am

Just over 25% through..
..and I'm not sure how I feel about it yet. It's interesting, don't get me wrong, but I don't feel particularly close to any of the characters, outside of my obvious investment in Cora and Caesar getting away. I've just come across the railroad, too, which is apparently a literal railroad in this novel, so there we go. One thing that I do think is well done is how the author frames the racism and oppression of the time through Cora. It's obviously inhuman, and for the modern reader it's pretty awful to see on the page - moreover though, I think the impact is pushed up by the fact that Cora views it all as an inevitable facet of life.

Interested to see how it goes on.
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Re: [BC] March: The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

Post by Hades [Forge] » Thu Mar 15, 2018 3:17 am

50% in now;

Definitely more invested at this point. I think seeing the chages that come over Cora once they're away from the Randall plantation help - the small pleasures she takes in things like softer clothes, the blue dress, having food in abundance. Equally, that also makes it all the more distressing to see the little ways in which the runaway slaves are taken advantage of by the proctors and their associates. You feel for Cora in a very real way when she's subjected to the indignity of the museum, and you're rooting for her in terms of the whole 'evil eye' thing and getting around their attempts to sterilise her.

Which, ultimately, makes it that much worse when things go to hell and she winds up back on the railroad. We're in North Carolina now, and whilst it's only been a brief glimpse so far, it looks like a hellhole. This is not going to be a happy section of the book.
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Re: [BC] March: The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

Post by Hades [Forge] » Fri Mar 16, 2018 12:08 am

75% in;

Not a massive update. I'm still on the fence in terms of how I feel about this one. I'm a little more invested in Cora, but I'm not sure if it's the storytelling style or what, but I'm finding it hard to be gripped.

Let's talk about Ridgeway for a sec, though.

He plays an important part in this section of the book, after Cora's flight to North Carolina and the incident with Martin and Ethel. The slave hunter's an odd one - we've already had that snippet into his past; his father's profession, the presence of the Great Spirit and how that fed into his own career. We're aware that he is a bad guy. It's just interesting that his behaviour's so atypical compared to 99% of the other white folk in the novel.

Ridgeway's treatment of Cora is baffling. He doesn't treat the slaves particularly badly, all things considered. He buys Cora new clothes, feeds them evenly and regularly, doesn't go out of his way to abuse them. He has extensive conversations with Cora in a way that other white people don't, and in one of his discussions he expresses something close to admiration at her will to survive. Surviving, he says, is what it's all about.

At the same time, he's very specific in how he dehumanises black people, calling them "it" and making a point of being cruel. He torments Cora over Lovey and Caesar, deliberately looking for a rise. That, coupled with his almost zealous fervour in pursuing his job, is pretty damn unsettling.

I'm not sure what role he's going to play. At the 75% mark Cora gets away from him again, but it's inevitable that he'll come back, and the whole link between the two of them and her mother leads me to think he's probably going to stick around till the conclusion.
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Re: [BC] March: The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

Post by Hades [Forge] » Fri Mar 16, 2018 3:46 am

And 100%;

This'll be rambling, so bear with me.

Not sure how I feel having finished it. The novel never really got its hooks into me the way that some of our previous titles have. That said, it's a powerful piece of writing, and I think it's as relevant to the present state of things as it is to the past.

The transformation of the Railroad into a literal thing, hewn into the rock by the hands of slaves, transforms it into a fantastical metaphor for their fight toward freedom. Likewise, Ridgeway (I think) does a strong job of representing the voice of what Whitehead refers to as the 'American Imperative' - If you can keep it, it's yours. There's a section in there, toward the end, where a character discusses delusion; the belief of the oppressor that it's their right to take, and harm, and enslave. This sort of message strikes home now more than ever, with the ongoing treatment of minorities in modern America. It's a disturbing frame of reference, and I think it's probably important to come away from this novel uneasy with how relatable some of its themes are.

So there we go. A shift from the lighter novels we've read, and it's a shift that you feel as a reader, but a worthwhile one overall.
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