Publication Date: August 2, 2016
Literary Awards: Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (2016), Oprah’s Book Club Selection (2016)
A work of amazing scope and breadth, shocking in the brutality of events, and so pertinent to politics and race discussions being held today. This is an important piece of literature reminding Americans of our history, the beginnings of race relations in our country, and you can follow this thread out to today and realize that we still have a long way to go. I love that Michelle Obama reminded us that the white house was built by slaves, at the DNR earlier this month, a fact that is also mentioned in this book. Our government is literally built on slavery.
“White folk eat you up but sometimes colored folk eat you up, too.”
Cora is the protagonist of the novel, born on a Georgia cotton plantation, whose mother runs away from the plantation while Cora is still young. Cora is mistreated by the slave owners and fellow slaves alike, being shunned, raped, whipped, and degraded in every way seemingly possible. She is labelled a stray. The horrors she and others face on the plantation at the outset of this novel are shocking in their rendering and brutality.
“With strategic sterilization – first the women but both sexes in time – we could free them from bondage without the fear that they’d butcher us in our sleep.”
Caesar, a fellow slave, approaches her with an escape plan and she accepts. The book follows Cora’s tortuous escape route on a literal underground railroad, bringing a magical element into the novel. This isn’t the only time that Colson Whitehead takes liberty with historical elements. Each stop along the railroad highlight different aspects of African American history, that in reality may have occurred in vastly different times and places. While Cora and Caesar are in South Carolina, the Tuskegee experiment is being conducted on the black population, an event that in history does not occur until much later, 1932-1972, with penicillin becoming available for the treatment of syphilis in 1947. It was also here in South Carolina, where Cora is offered sterilization and is asked to help persuade the other blacks living there to accept this measure.
“In North Carolina, the negro race did not exist except at the end of ropes.” Again, the fear many whites have of blacks is manifested in hatred and horrific acts. The North Carolinians in the novel abolished slavery by abolishing blacks from the state; those who did not leave willingly were hung along the “Freedom Trail,” as decided by the “Justice Convention.” Such ironical terms are attached to such atrocities to emphasize the justification involved. “But they were prisoners like she was, shackled to fear.” Those who aid Cora are subjected to the same fate as blacks.
Whitehead tackles many heavy issues in this novel, even religion. Cora sees paradox and hypocrisy in the bible. Ridgeway and other use the bible to find justification for their cause and actions. It is interesting to me the continuing theme of religion, something that many people find such comfort and peace in, also becomes a tool or justification for divisiveness and war.
In Tennesee, Whitehead tackles the treatment of Native Americans. “Manifest Destiny” is cited as the ultimate narcissistic doctrine of self justification for the mistreatment and displacement of another race.
Some chapters are named for the location in which they occur, but others are named after a character in the book, to get better insight into their mindset and thinking. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, the thugs of society, found purpose in becoming slave catchers. Homer never received his own chapter, and this leaves the reader wondering why a free black would choose to spend his life working and living alongside Ridgeway, a monstrous slave-catcher.
Valentine’s Farm, in Indiana, becomes a relative utopia, where blacks can live freely and share ideas, at least for a time. Lander states, “And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – that it is their right to take the land. To kill the 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.” These words are so important.
Whitehead’s words and message throughout this novel are direct, strong, and sweeping. We cannot be blind to our past. We cannot repeat the past by creating a culture of fear. We must live with our past, acknowledge our past and continue to make peace with it. There is so much to take in with this novel – the brutality of slavery and treatment of blacks outside of slavery, the kindness shown by those who were willing to risk their lives to help, the feeling that there is nowhere to escape to, only places to flee, the deeply seated racial prejudice and violence that continues, and so much more. I highly recommend this book to everyone! It is hugely pertinent to current times, beautifully rendered, and brilliant. There is so much to this novel, that I had to sit and think about it for days before attempting to put thoughts into a review. It is excellent material for discussion.
- Why do you think the author chose a female for the main character?
- How did you feel about the historical facts being changed for the sake of the story here?
- How does fear affect people?
- What role does religion play in this novel?
- How is the Hob represented outside of the plantation?
- Do you think there was anywhere truly safe to escape to in these times?
- Discuss branding, literally and figuratively. How are the former slaves branded?
- In what way do blacks become equals to whites in this novel?
- What did you suspect happened to Mabel, Cora’s mother?
- Why is the character Homer important? Why do you think he stays with Ridgeway?
- Discuss some of the discussions that took place on the Valentine farm.
- Discuss the role of those who helped slaves escape via the underground railroad and the risks taken.
Interview with Colson Whitehead published in Vulture
Review published by NPR
Review published in NY Times
Oprah’s Reading Group Guide