Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

9780708898376An absolute tour de force. A novel, unfortunately, that could not be more timely by a writer who doesn’t flinch at any stage.

There is often arguments when it comes to historical fiction about accuracy. How much leeway should story get over truth? For me historical fiction is not primarily about recounting historical events but  is about conveying historical events through story so that as a reader you empathise and get a richer understanding and viewpoint  that nonfiction is often constrained against providing. This is what Colson Whitehead does as he takes the folklore of the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses and pathways that helped slaves in the 1800s escape north, and imagines it as a real working railway.

Colson Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Cora has grown up in a brutal and unforgiving world. The only world she has ever known. Her mother ran off years before and is the only slave known to have successfully escaped the farm on which Cora is enslaved. When Cora is approached to escape she at first refuses but after a series of, even more brutal than usual, beatings she decides it is time to run. Whitehead details Cora’s journey as she escapes via a real underground railroad. A railroad that takes her slowly north where Cora experiences new worlds, some better than others, but all shrouded by racism and violence. Sometimes overtly, other times more hidden.

Cora’s journey unfolds like an odyssey as Cora explores each new destination she arrives in with monsters and horrors hidden in various forms. Whitehead uses Cora’s journey to explore all the different manifestations slavery takes on in society. From the basic and ruthless slavery of people as property or beasts of burden to more subtle and sinister forms of racism and enslavement. Colson Whitehead’s writing is unflinching and uncompromising letting the brutality and reality of Cora’s world through. At times painful to read and at others more hopeful but never shying away from the awful truth.

Colson Whitehead has written a novel of true power. A novel more important than ever, that will stay inside you long after you put it down. A true must read.

Buy the book here…

Not For Sale (But For Loan)

Not For SaleThe other day both my friend and my father voiced what I had myself been feeling—that although they loved the current crop of books I’ve been distributing to them as must-reads, that they might need to inject a few slightly trashier ones for some light relief. Phew. Me too.

I’d encountered a bumper crop of books, including Into The Woods (which I’ve already blogged about), Silent Spring (which I will blog about), and revisited the brilliant (if logic-defying) Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (which I’ll also blog about soon), but was feeling pretty disillusioned with and weighed down by social and environmental problems. And specifically gobsmacked and frustrated that we humans are the initial and ongoing root of all this evil.

While on one level I am empowered and invigorated and inspired to enact change after reading these kinds of books, on almost every other level I feel like sitting in a corner, wallowing, and wishing it would all go away. So why, out of the 50-ish books I have sitting waiting to be read (see previous blog and feel free to send some pointers my way), I finally picked out David Batstone’s Not For Sale, I’ll never know.

Confessions of an Economic Hit ManIt’s a book about abolishing human trafficking. As in slavery. As in the horror happens in developing nations but also, more frighteningly, right here, right now, in our backyard. I can feel the friends I plan to pass the book on to wince already. What happened to me finding them some cotton-candy airport fiction, right?

The good news is that the topic sounds (and is) heavy, Batstone covers it with a light touch. He threads stats with real-life examples, short chapters, and segments of case studies. You’re introduced to a person at the beginning of the chapter and then return to them at its close to find out how their story ended up.

I’m now equal parts fascinated and disturbed how the parts of the world where people (often women or children) who are trafficked (often for sex crimes) changes a little like fashion does—wars, famines, poor financial prospects, a lack of international pressure or sanctions, or governments looking the other way, all play a part in determining who’s trafficked from and to where.

Into The WoodsThe book covers the stories of women and children forced into sexual slavery in Thailand or Uganda or [insert name of just about any nation here] through poverty or the promise of education for their children or through nightmarish village razing and abduction.

I now understand how people get there and stay/are kept there. I also now understand how it’s a very profitable industry—globalisation at its worst—because Batstone unpacks what’s an entirely complex and murkily moralled issue in a straightforward, commonsense manner.

While the awfulness of the violence and rape perpetrated against women and children really did make me wince, I both winced more knowing that slavery goes on in first-world nations (seriously, in suburban USA and probably in suburban Australia) and that I should be doing more to stop it.

I’m making it sound bleak, though, which it’s really not. Especially as Batstone features the people who, often through random encounters or split-second decisions, have found themselves dedicating their lives to stamping human trafficking out.

I know I’m going to have a hard time selling Not For Sale to my friends as family right now as they all need a less complex carbohydrate non-fiction call to action, more mindlessly consumable simple carbohydrate Twilight-style tale, but I am still going to try. If not now, then at some stage, Not For Sale should be on the list of books I loan out.