****The Underground Railroad


photo: Kimberly Vardeman, creative commons license

By Colson Whitehead – I was glad my book group chose this winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, which made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize AND was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club. I searched vainly for hours for the photo I’d seen of President Obama carrying it. Thinking he too had read it also gladdened my heart.

Now that I’ve actually read it, I am triply gladdened. Certainly it raises painful issues and reminders of our country’s difficult history (Make America Great Again?). Those issues are worth confronting repeatedly and anew, society-wide, and as individuals who read books. Their consequences are still with us and all around us. The Civil Rights era did not erase the past, confer respect or opportunity on all our fellow-citizens, or assure a conflict-free future, just as giving women the vote did not solve the problems of inequality and sexual harassment for women.

The experiences of Whitehead’s protagonist, the slave Cora (Cora was an alternative name for the goddess Persephone, queen of the underworld; or was Whitehead thinking “heart”?), property of a cotton plantation-owning family in Georgia, are not unfamiliar. Yet Whitehead gives his writing an immediacy that powers the story forward and makes it painfully fresh, as Cora encounters one difficulty after another. Her mother is the only slave to have successfully escaped the Randall Plantation, and Cora, alternately admiring her mother’s gumption and hating her for her abandonment, is determined, somehow, to follow her.

In a device best termed magical realism, Whitehead’s underground railroad is a real railroad. It runs in darkened tunnels and has rails and locomotives. Yet, this initially awkward metaphor brings the actual conditions of slave escape to light in a new way, when we learn it’s a railroad with no fixed schedule, uncertain destinations, and ambiguity about whether routes or stations are even open.

As it’s usually used, the term “underground railroad” conjures what we know about railroads and timetables and reliably running trains and certainties at the other end of the line. In Whitehead’s metaphor, those certainties are upended. If a stationmaster has been found out, a station may be closed. And he is gone. Whether he was black or white, helping a runaway slave was deadly business.

Whitehead’s writing is straightforward, yet evocative: “Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”

Not unexpectedly, America comes in for some sharp criticism for the discrepancy between its high ideals and low practices—not only slavery, but also the massacre and theft of American Indian lands. To someone like Cora and her friend Caesar, core American notions of equality and justice were irrelevant to their lived reality. “All men are created equal,” the white man thinks, “unless we decide you are not a man.”

A year ago, Amazon announced plans for a mini-series based on this book. It may be true to the book, but who knows? The book pulls no punches, and reading it is a much more complicated experience than learning Cora’s story.

Princeton’s Fall Literary Highlights

soldiers, Iraq

(photo: U.S. Army, creative commons license)

Fall 2015 will be an exciting time for Princeton-area followers of the literary world. The Althea Ward Clark reading series of the Lewis Center for the Arts includes three top-notch entries. The monthly series features a poet and a prose writer, usually known for fiction, and they are held in the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, at 4:30 p.m.

On September 30, the program presents Phil Klay, a National Book Award winner for his collection of short stories, Redeployment. Klay is a former Marine who served in Iraq. His stories show the profound dislocation of young Americans trying to cope with a seriously broken society completely foreign to their understanding—an experience that gradually transforms their views of America too. “In Klay’s hands, Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory for the human condition in extremis,” said Dexter Filkins’s New York Times review. Also reading will be Natalie Diaz, who has a poetry collection titled When My Brother Was an Aztec and has won the Nimrod/Hardin Pablo Neruda Prize.

Short story writer and novelist Jhumpa Lahiri will appear on October 14 with poet Mary Szybist. Lahiri’s collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but she may be best known for The Namesake and the movie made from it. Her most recent novel is The Lowland, shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker prize, and a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Her first two books tell about the displacement and loss of context of experienced by Indian immigrants in America. The Lowland, “buoyantly ambitious in both its story and its form,” said NPR reviewer Maureen Corrigan, is set mostly in Calcutta. Szybist won the National Book Award for her poetry collection Incarnadine.

Finally, on November 18 novelist Adam Johnson and poet Dorianne Laux will read. Johnson wrote the masterful 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Orphan Master’s Son, and I can’t wait to hear him read—I hope from his new collection of stories. Laux’s most recent poetry collection is The Book of Men.

More Local Events

Starting in late September, the Lewis Center will present the Princeton French Theater Festival—a diverse array of plays and readings.

The regular literary programs at the Princeton Public Library continue—book groups for mysteries, fiction, black voices, poetry, and Spanish-language stories. October 24, the library hosts the annual “Local Author Day book fair.”

On October 30 at Labyrinth Books, cultural historian Thomas Laqueur will discuss his book, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Right up my alley. It’s one of a dozen discussions of books on various topics (not much fiction) the bookstore has scheduled for September and October.