The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–42 are below this post.
43. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (2016) (9/9/16)
In the case of The Underground Railroad, he takes on the pre–Civil War South, and the stories of slaves. His heroine is Cora, a teenager whose mother disappeared into the night when Cora was nine years old. She is a strong young woman, and when a fellow slave invites her to join him in an escape attempt, she agrees. They are helped by white folks, and chased by other white folks. The underground railroad in this case is an actual railroad, stretching from state to state in dark tunnels. Along the way someone who comes to her aid tells her, "If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America." She thinks often about this advice, and late in the story realizes, "It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness." Over the course of her journey, she loses faith in many things, but gains faith in others.
The railroad is an apt metaphor indeed for a story that sees Cora enjoying relative safety for a while in a South Carolina city where blacks and whites mix fairly freely, before she must flee because a bounty hunter is hard on her trail. Her next stop, in North Carolina, sees her shut up in an attic, where from the window she can watch the weekly "entertainment" of speechifying and public lynchings. When the bounty hunter catches up with her again, she is rescued by some free blacks who take her to Indiana, where, again, she can live in relative contentment among other freedmen and escaped slaves. But that idyll, too, is destroyed through violence and fear.
The main chapters, labeled according to places Cora winds up, are interspersed with short profiles of people in her life: her grandmother, Ajarry, who was brought (i.e., bought) from Africa; Ridgeway, the bounty hunter; Stevens, a physician advocating sterilization of blacks; Ethel, the terrified white woman who reluctantly takes Cora in in North Carolina; Caesar, who invited her in the first place; and Mabel, Cora's mother, whose fate we finally learn, though Cora herself never does.
Here is a sample of the writing from the short chapter about Ajarry:
"Her price fluctuated. When you are sold that many times, the world is teaching you to pay attention. She learned to quickly adjust to the new plantations, sorting the nigger breakers from the merely cruel, the layabouts form the hardworking, the informers from the secret-keepers. Masters and mistresses in degrees of wickedness, estates of disparate means and ambition. Sometimes the planters wanted nothing more than to make a humble living, and then there were men and women who wanted to own the world, as if it were a matter of the proper acreage. Two hundred and forty-eight, two hundred and sixty, two hundred and seventy dollars. Wherever she went it was sugar and indigo, except for a stint folding tobacco leaves for one week before she was sold again. The trader called upon the tobacco plantation looking for slaves of breeding age, preferably with all their teeth and of pliable disposition. She was a woman now. Off she went.
"She knew that the white man's scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won't survive a trip across the ocean. A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth. A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money. If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities. She minded her place."