The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Warning: I can already see this post getting derailed by my overactive brain. Physically, I am a total mess right now, and it’s not helping my mental state. This may very well be all over the place (politically) and have very little to do with the story at hand. You’ve been warned. My apologies.

Alright, The Underground Railroad. I have to say I wasn’t as crazy about this novel as I had hoped. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among many other awards and the plot was intriguing so my expectations were high. It’s not that it wasn’t good, it was, it just didn’t meet expectations. I think for one, I felt that I didn’t get to know most of the characters. The novel is told in third person, primarily focusing on Cora, a young female slave. Long chapters of her experiences are interwoven with brief chapters narrowing in on other characters. And I mean brief. Hour long chapters about Cora and five minutes devoted to someone else. I liked the style, I got to see different perspectives (though it did always remain in third person), but I always felt like I wanted a little bit more out of the short chapters. I really knew Cora by the end of the novel and wanted to know more about her acquaintances. I will say the chapter about her mother was phenomenal. I won’t spoil it, though.

The premise of the story is that the underground railroad is actually what you thought it was when you first heard the term in elementary school. A railroad. Cora is a slave in Georgia and flees with her friend Caesar, first to South Carolina, then to North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and ultimately further north. One thing I appreciated was that Whitehead did not sugarcoat anything. This story is not cheerful or lighthearted and for good reason. In reality, few slaves made it out with a happily ever after ending and a book that portrayed that would be inaccurate and insensitive. The ending is rather open-ended, but given the various events of the novel, you don’t feel overly optimistic about Cora’s fate. I respect and appreciate Whitehead for giving an honest, be it historically-fictional, account of the time period.

Books like these, and the one I read before this (the nonfiction Man’s Search for Meaning) help to pull life into perspective. And here is where I might go off the rails a bit from the story itself. You’ve been warned. I know this story, as compared to Man’s Search for Meaning, is fictional, but the stories are not far-fetched. I also realize that Frankl made a point in his story and I mentioned it in my post, that suffering is relative. We cannot compare our suffering. Yes, yes, I agree. But sometimes we all need a little perspective in our lives, too. Reading these two stories back to back helped me to put my life into perspective.

I’ve spent time too much time recently focusing on the negatives. Among other things, I broke out in hives all weekend when exposed to the sun. My foot swelled up from ONE black fly bite. Today I may have broken my pinky toe. (If you’re laughing, I hear ya. It has reached the point of absurdity. I think I may be at the point of laughing at myself, too.) But in the grand scheme of things?! These minor negatives are nothing compared to the positives. I spent all of last week on the lake. I kayaked with my mom. I read this novel. I spent some quality time with my brother. I played board games and lawn games. I laughed endlessly.

These books are reality checks. I am so incredibly fortunate. We all are. If you’re reading this, you probably are too.

And this is where I’m going to go further off the rails…

You know who isn’t incredibly fortunate right now? The 300+ immigrants in Albany jail who have to prove that they are fearful of returning to their own country in order to just receive representation in court from the immigration unit at my mom’s non-profit. That was a long sentence, let me break it down. Hundreds of immigrants who tried to enter at the Mexican border, some of which tried to enter through customs, were thrown in jail. Since the southern jails are overflowing with immigrants, many were flown elsewhere, including to Albany, NY. They will be sent back to their country, unless they can prove that they have reason to fear returning, determined at their ‘Credible Fear Interview’ (CFI). My mom’s nonprofit, Prisoners’ Legal Services of NY has a fairly small amount of lawyers dedicated to immigration. They will be representing the immigrants in court at their removal hearings. A handful of lawyers to hundreds of people. People who speak little to no English, people who are scared to go home, but are also scared to be in an unfamiliar place, people who have never felt more alone. PEOPLE. These are people. That should be all that matters. I cannot comprehend the bigotry in this country right now.

Can you imagine how sad, how lonely, how unwelcome these people must feel? Imagine just going a few days without access to the Internet? I think as little as I comprehend bigotry, I also cannot comprehend just how fortunate I am. Something as simple as losing access to a phone and thus not being able to contact my family, would be suffocating. I have to wonder if the bigots of the world could truly face an immigrant, look them in the eye, and say the things they say to the masses. If they could talk to a mother who is just trying to save her children from their home country and say, “you *derogatory term* keep takin’ our damn jobs, go back to where you came from.” Could they? Are they that heartless? I don’t know, I really don’t. I want to believe that when you get to that level, when you can humanize the pain and suffering at an individual level, that we all have compassion and empathy. I want to believe that, I need to believe that.

Abrupt ending. This is what happens when I can’t get my emotions out through exercise. Rant rant rant. Thanks for sticking with me. Goodnight.

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