Lately I’ve especially been focused on American history and biography in the antebellum and civil war eras, with Battle Cry of Freedom and Team of Rivals on that list and two of the best books I’ve ever read. With all of this Civil War era reading I’ve become quite fascinated with Lincoln, and decided to stop by Springfield, Illinois (I had to drive a car from Nashville to Minnesota) to check out the historic Lincoln sites. A gift shop at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site had stacks of the book The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I saw had won the 2016 National Book Award and which I had seen on several readings lists, including Obama’s. I didn’t know much about the subject, and thought I should, so I snagged it.
It wasn’t until I got back to Minnesota that I realized it was a novel. Oops. Oh well. My favorite type of fiction is historic fiction, and assuming that’s what it was I still decided to give it a read.
The book tells the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, and her journey following her escape via the Underground Railroad. The description of plantation life is jarring and historically based, but following her escape things start to get a little fantastical. Wait, did the Underground Railroad really include literal underground railroads? I did some internet searching. Hold on – South Carolina relatively progressive in regards to slavery? As I continued to fact-check it finally dawned on me that this was not traditional historical fiction and that I needed to let the skeptic in me go so I could experience the book.
The Underground Railroad is a fantastic, heart-wrenching book. It has gripping language. Here Cora considers the limits of her new-found freedom: "What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits."
Here Cora recalls a dream following a harrowing night: "In the night she had dreamed she was at sea and chained belowdecks. Next to her was another captive, and another, hundreds of them crying in terror. The ship bucked on swells, dove and slammed into anvils of water."
As the book follows Cora’s journey, it takes a tour of slavery in the US – its reality, the turns it could have but didn’t take, its legacy, and how it haunts our present. It is a powerful and provocative book.
The Underground Railroad has reminded me of the joy of reading good novels, and how different it is from reading nonfiction. Reading’s not just about the learning, but also the experience of engaging with the author at a different, more emotional level than you can with narrative history. And reading novels may be beneficial in other ways: a recent study suggest that reading novels makes us kinder and more empathetic. Emanuele Castano, the study author, said that fiction “forces you as a reader to contribute your own interpretations, to reconstruct the mind of the character.” This is so true of The Underground Railroad.
So whether you love fiction or, like me, prefer nonfiction, give this book a read.
Bill Lehto is the publisher at Freethought House and editor of Atheist Voices of Minnesota.