I’d heard Colson Whitehead interviewed several times and was anxious to read his new novel. But, I found it very frustrating for several reasons: 1) It is not historical. It’s a fantasy 2) It becomes preachy and annoying at the end 3) It left me cold.
I had to struggle to finish this book. Why? Here are my reasons.
There were no railroads running underground to ferry runaway slaves to safety. Why did Mr. Whitehead think he needed to create this fantasy? What really happened would have been much more interesting and suspenseful. People all up and down the coast, at the risk of their lives and those of their families, fed, sheltered and escorted runaway slaves to safety. That’s what really happened. Slaves were hidden in homes and moved in the dead of night from post to post. Yes, they referred to these stops as stations and yes, they called it a railroad. But, no, it was not a hole in the floor with a railroad underneath. Why fabricate this part of history?
He described the Freedom Trail as a trail of dead, slave (or slave lovers) hanging from trees. He made the people of North Carolina look like the worst possible evil. Why? In fact, the actual president of the Underground Railroad was from the Quaker community in Greensboro, North Carolina. Recently the people of North Carolina found a wagon with a hidden floor to carry slaves to freedom. There were people all over North Carolina who helped run the Underground Railroad. Sure, North Carolina had its angry white people, as did all the other states. Why make North Carolina look so bad? And, BTW, there wasn’t that much cotton grown in North Carolina. Not like in South Carolina and Georgia. Hence not as much need for slave labor.
Third, the characters were likable enough. I rooted for Cora throughout the book. But, why dispatch with Caesar so quickly. We knew nothing about him. The few pages dedicated to his point of view were minimal and told us very little.
Fourth, the end of the book dragged and became too preachy. The author spoke through Lander’s lips. That’s fine, but did we need to hear it over and over and over. Was Mr. Whitehead preaching because of his own anger about the institution of slavery or was he trying to add to his word count? I’m not sure, but as I reader, I began skimming and skimming a lot.
Yes, this book won the Pulitzer and I have to wonder what are the criteria for a Pulitzer. False facts? Alternative facts?
Do not monkey with the facts. For the life of me I can’t see why people rated this book so highly nor how the Pulitzer judges gave it such high praise. Let me add that the brilliant women in my book club loved this book. They tried to tell me why. I just didn’t get it. Maybe I’m just not smart enough. If you agree with my book club, tell me why. Please!
If you want to read an historical account of slavery, try the trilogy, Chains, Forge and Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson. The author put the reader in the mind of slaves and we experienced the horrors of that world, but we did it within the context of reality.