The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Review

Sunday, 29 October 2017

TW: Racism
Contains Spoilers.


In 2017, we live in a world where white supremacy is not only very much alive but making itself known in a very public manner. We all saw the images and footage of neo-Nazis marching along Charlottesville, we heard about Heather Heyer who lost her life protesting against hatred and just yesterday you may have seen footage of white men screaming “white lives matter” in Tennessee. We’ve watched the President of the United States refuse to condemn white supremacists, we’ve watched him attack black NFL players again and again and we’re all too aware of the fact his supporters are very much the ones spewing the racist venom.

I can voice my disgust and hatred towards the acts of these pathetic excuses for human beings but my disgust is purely superficial in comparison to the anger and fear any person of colour will experience in their day to day life. I can’t relate because I’m white and sit firmly in my privilege; the only thing I can do is educate myself on past racism and the current racial climate and I chose to begin that educational journey with *The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad tells the tale of Cora, a motherless slave girl who escapes a Georgia cotton plantation and her owners with her friend and fellow slave Caesar. Their escape begins with them fighting their way through a swamp when they discover fellow slave Lovey has followed them. Cora, Caesar, and Lovey continue through the swamp in hopes of reaching the first station of the Underground Railroad. Lovey’s story ends abruptly after all 3 slaves are cornered; Lovey is captured but Cora and Caesar make it out alive and it’s at this point where we’re introduced to the Underground Railroad and the people willing to help slaves escape.

Throughout the story, Colson Whitehead uses the Underground Railroad as a fully operational legitimate railway. I think some people will argue that this was to make things convenient and speed up Cora’s and Caesar’s escape but I personally loved this added touch. Up until recently, I believed the Underground Railroad was, in fact, an actual railroad with old-fashioned passenger trains so seeing my silly idea being used as a premise for a book amused me while simultaneously making me cringe at my own ignorance.

Their first stop of the Underground Railroad is South Carolina; a state that presents itself as progressive and willing to help integrate former slaves into society. Cora is given a job, a place to stay and an education. She lives a fairly happy life but the worry of a slave catcher named Ridgeway being hot on her tail is always at the back of her mind. While everything seems great on the surface it becomes apparent that South Carolina’s progressive nature isn’t as it seems.

The white people of South Carolina are conducting forced sterilization on the black people they’re pretending to help and are also carrying out inhumane things such as the Tuskegee experiment. While The Underground Railroad is set in the 1800s, Colson Whitehead uses a broad timeline to tell the story. The Tuskegee experiments, for example, happened between 1932 and 1972 but Whitehead has manipulated the dates to make the story more horrifying than it already is. Admittedly, I found the story became disjointed in places as a result of the mismatched timeframe but it does make for a good starting point if you’re looking to do further research into past racism.

There is a distinct lack of description of the brutality slaves experienced on a daily basis at both the hands of their slave owners and after they’ve escaped if they ever manage to do so. There is enough to make your mind wander and explore what else could have possibly happened to all of these people but I personally don’t believe the human mind can truly comprehend these atrocities without a little guidance. I wanted The Underground Railroad to make me uncomfortable and it didn’t quite manage it. I know enough about slavery and historical racism to put the pieces together myself but I feel like Colson Whitehead missed an opportunity to really drive home the horrendous nature of white people.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

One of the few descriptions of brutality comes in North Carolina. After Cora escapes the illusion of South Carolina, she finds herself in a state that has begun the process of eliminating black people. The road from the North Carolina Underground Railroad station is lined with rows of black people hanging by their necks, there is a lynching in the park every week which draws in huge crowds of white people looking for cheap entertainment and raids on houses are carried out on a regular basis as the locals search for abolitionists and Underground Railroad operators harbouring escaped slaves. If there is ever a point where you really hope Cora escapes, it’s during her stay in North Carolina. You fear that the fate instilled upon the unfortunate people who are caught will be placed upon her but instead, Cora meets a different kind of fate. The slave catcher named Ridgeway finally gets a hold of her.

As Ridgeway takes Cora back to her slave owner in Georgia, another part of history is intertwined in the form of yellow fever that gripped Tennessee in the second half of the 1800s. You plead for yellow fever to strike down Cora’s captors or for her to somehow find a chance to escape but it never happens, she’s chained up and forced to listen to Ridgeway as he slowly takes her back to meet her death. It’s at this point where we discover what happened to Caesar. He has of course been tortured and killed in a disturbing fashion but that wasn’t what caught my attention. I had completely forgotten Caesar was even in the story at all as he is an extremely underdeveloped character. His only real contribution to The Underground Railroad is that he gets the ball rolling on Cora’s escape but even then, Cora could have muddled her way through that without him.

Cora eventually escapes Ridgeway and then escapes Ridgeway again. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find her multiple escapes from him to be convenient. There are points where I just don’t believe the things Cora is capable of as she is presented as an uneducated 15-year-old girl naïve to the world outside of her own plantation. She seems to have an inordinate amount of strength both physically and mentally and I personally just don’t buy it. It makes her a true heroine but it doesn’t feel like an entirely accurate depiction of a girl who, up until Caesar’s suggestion to escape, never ventured beyond the borders of the plantation she was forced to work and live on.

There is also the additional issue of Cora’s mother Mabel. She is often referenced throughout the story as Cora tries to come to terms with her abandonment. Mabel is presented as a woman so desperate to escape the plantation that she leaves her daughter behind and runs into the swamp. You believe Mabel escaped and is living somewhere in the north or made it to Canada but in reality, Mabel never made it beyond the swamp. She got a few miles away from the plantation in the dark before having a change of heart and went to make her way back but was bitten by a snake and died. Mabel was so focused on through The Underground Railroad that the truth of her demise seemed rushed and forced. I believe that her escape should have ended with her coming across a variation of the Great Dismal Swamp as this would have set up another good point for further research and would provide the reader with a glimmer of hope for any future runaways.

You’re probably thinking while reading this review that I didn’t enjoy The Underground Railroad and in a small way, you would be correct. There are a few things I would change about this book but that doesn’t take away from the fact I think it’s a brilliant piece of literature and something worth reading. There are very few people who can tackle a subject matter like slavery, intertwine it with other historical events from different periods and make a captivating and worthwhile story out of it but Colson Whitehead managed just that. I do believe there would be more emotion and urgency to the entire story if it was written in Cora’s voice but there is also a chance I am looking for a way to relate to her as a character when in reality, I can’t.

Admittedly, I think it would be an ignorant move on my part to present The Underground Railroad as an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours. This isn't entertainment, this is a fairly accurate insight into a life that should never have happened and I would urge anyone, whether you have an understanding of racism or are adamant racism doesn't exist, to read The Underground Railroad. It's not without its flaws but it's a flawed book worth reading.

Disclaimer: Anything marked with an asterisk (*) is an affiliate link.

What's On My Desk?

Thursday, 26 October 2017

First things first, the title of this post is a lie. I could show you what’s on my desk but I don’t think you want to see a pile of clean clothes that I somehow could be bothered washing and ironing but can’t be bothered putting away. You probably don’t want to see the random notes I leave for myself that are usually not much more than doodles of pizza and cartoon faces either. So, instead of the mundane items that lie upon a desk, I’d thought I’d show you the more interesting things that are scattered all over the area I tend to do my best work; the entertainment unit that I hunch over every day.

Winsor and Newton Art Materials

I have plenty of surfaces and plenty of chairs in my house so I can’t explain why I choose to sit on the floor and destroy my posture by leaning over an entertainment unit other than it’s surrounded by a constant source of inspiration. Above the unit is a painting of Stirling Castle but Jan Nelson, to the right of Jan Nelson’s work is a painting by Roderick Gauld and further along is a poster of Stephen King’s IT. Next to the unit is a steadily growing pile of books; some of which are illustrative fashion books, others are full of drawing techniques and the rest are fictional. Of course, there is a TV on this entertainment stand which will remain off while I’m chilling on the floor.

On the actual unit is a whole bunch of art supplies. This is where I tend to work on new paintings and drawings and doodles that aren’t pizza or cartoon characters. I’m gravitating more towards watercolour recently so there are a few palettes scattered everywhere and a couple of tiny paintbrushes. I also have a fondness for ink so I have multiple bottles of various colours lying around. A plethora of pencils - both graphite and watercolour - decorate the unit as well as a few pens for outlining. The dreaded smelly masking fluid lies near the ink so I can block off areas that need to stay clear of colour. There are tubes of gouache which admittedly, I keep eyeing up and then going straight back to the watercolour palettes. There are also half eaten packs of Polos everywhere as I discovered in high school that the mint with the hole in the middle helps me stay focused.

Polos Sharing Pot

You’re probably thinking one of these things is not like the others and you would be right although I have tried to erase lines with Polos on numerous occasions. I keep Polos everywhere; they’re in my pocket, my car, my bag, the side of my bed etc because, although I thoroughly enjoy having minty fresh breath, they’re a “normal” thing for me. If I’m going into a situation that’s completely out of my comfort zone, I pop a Polo in and it gives me something else to focus on while my legs carry me to said scary situation. Polos have gotten me through countless exams, job interviews, driving tests and awkward human interactions. I always have them to hand while drawing and painting as they somehow focus my mind which means I’m less likely to make stupid irreversible mistakes. Having the new sharing pot of Polos to hand is an absolute dream although I am worried I’m going to try and wash my brush in the Polo pot.

While hunching over the entertainment unit is probably going to ruin my back over time, it’s the only place where I seem to be motivated and creative. I don’t know if it’s to do with my surroundings or if it’s just because I really can’t be bothered putting those clean clothes away but for now, I love having art supplies scattered all over a unit that sits in the room I spend most of my time in.

Disclaimer: This post is in collaboration with Polo.

The Power by Naomi Alderman Review

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Contains spoilers

With the fall of a certain Hollywood producer that I have fondly nicknamed “Harvey Wankstain” and the sexual harassment that has been brewing under the surface of blockbuster movies for quite some time finally making itself known, the idea of women dominating the world is appealing. With more women coming forward about their own dealings with sexual harassment and sexual assault there are more men – a term I use loosely - waiting to tear them down. You can’t share your own experiences without a male telling you that it’s a compliment, that you’re overreacting, that you should be grateful for the attention. It’s easy to ponder how life would be if the world’s power were switched; if men were the oppressed ones while women stomped all over them and Naomi Alderman explores just that in her fourth novel, The Power*.

The Power Naomi Alderman

The Power is a dystopian sci-fi novel that is set over the period of 10 years. During this timeframe, we’re introduced to and follow the lives of 4 main characters; 3 female and 1 male. The first character we’re introduced to is by far the most exciting. Fourteen-year-old Roxy is one of the youngest and one of the first girls to experience the power; an ability women have to generate electricity through their fingertips. She’s the daughter of a British mob boss which shapes her character development throughout the story particularly towards the end. If this was any other novel, Roxy would be a male as she’s often depicted as a strong hero who exudes confidence while maintaining some degree of vulnerability.

Tunde is the one main male character of The Power. He is the first male who experiences the women’s dominance in the story and his experience comes during a minor sexual encounter. The feeling leaves him confused but sparks a degree of interest. He chooses to film another female letting off her power and after posting it online, decides to become a journalist documenting the rise of the women. It’s through Tunde that we see how the power is developing across the world especially in poorer countries where women are significantly more oppressed than in the western world.

I personally found the other 2 main characters, Allie and Margot, to be rather dull and one dimensional. Allie is an orphan who escapes the abuse of the people who are trusted to look after her and lives in a convent. Throughout The Power, Allie becomes Mother Eve and brings a heavy religious aspect to the story. Margot on the other-hand is a mother and a mayor who desperately tries to hide her power at all times. Throughout The Power, Margot is presented as a strong female who uses her political connections to build up girls and help them control their own power.

The beautiful thing about The Power is how easily Naomi Alderman has taken everyday life for girls everywhere and turned it on its head. There are rape culture references scattered throughout the story as the women justify what they’re doing to men, there’s the use of religion which more often or not paints the women as the weaker sex but in this scenario, it’s used to empower women and the men are fearful for their lives and terrified that women will humiliate them through rape and assault. Alderman makes the switch so easily that it provokes your own sense of empowerment while also building up rage towards the men who resist the female uprising. The anger I felt was predominately directed at the males posters of a Reddit style forum as they plotted to take the women down and assert their dominance once more. It is an accurate depiction of the thoughts of some men expressed violently on the internet.

The Power Naomi Alderman

The Reddit forum in question is mainly a discussion surrounding the real identity of Mother Eve i.e. Allie and this is where my interest in the book began to waver. Allie/Mother Eve preaches religion to anyone who is willing to listen and it got to the point where my eyes would roll whenever I saw her name at the top of a new chapter. I’m struggling to find the value Allie/Mother Eve brings to the story other than being a stepping stone for Roxy's character development.

As the story progresses and tensions between males and females rise, it starts to feel disjointed. Allie/Mother Eve seems to be everywhere and nowhere and Margot becomes governor but continues to contribute nothing of interest to the overall development of The Power. Roxy however, is the first and only introduction we get to a woman losing her “skein”; the part of a woman that allows her to generate the electricity.

Roxy’s brother and father surgically remove the skein so it can be implanted into her brother which leaves the once powerful and sure of herself Roxy, intensely vulnerable and scared. Tunde also begins to fear for his safety as tensions boil over and laws are implemented that make men worthless. He needs to escape but he finds himself in the mountains and a witness to a rape and the death of a man. It’s at this point where a mild romance between Roxy and Tunde blossoms which in turn gives Roxy a more human quality to her as a character.

It’s not long after this moment where The Power falls flat on its face. The ending to the entire novel seems rushed and it highlights how many loose ends remain throughout the story. The entire premise of the story is built on all women reacting violently with their power and, although I understand what Alderman was trying to do with this depiction, I personally felt it removed my overall enjoyment of the book as it painted women as cold, callous and shallow. Other than Tunde, Roxy and the women who were victims of sex-trafficking it was hard to cheer for anyone throughout The Power.

If I had to read The Power all over again, I would sit on my hands and take an exceptionally long time to do it. It’s not that it’s a terrible read, it would make an excellent TV show (I believe it is being turned into just that) but it’s not without its flaws and unfortunately, the flaws outweigh the entire premise of the story.

Disclaimer: Anything marked with an asterisk (*) is an affiliate link.

Book Haul

Sunday, 8 October 2017

I was promised a book if I got out of bed. It was 2 pm on a sunny Saturday so I really shouldn’t have been in bed that late anyway but regardless if being horizontal for prolonged periods of time means I get a book then I will happily snooze away. I did say I was promised a book, didn’t I? As in, a single book but you’ve probably already figured out based on the fact this post is entitled “book haul” that I walked away with more than one.

Book Haul

Let’s do the book I’m most excited to read first. I saw the latest film adaption of IT in the cinema last week and ended up with more questions than answers so I decided I had to read the book. IT, in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid the clown hysteria, is written by horror extraordinaire Stephen King. He tells the tale of Pennywise, a clown that awakens every 27 years to terrorize a small town in Maine, USA, and prey on children. Pennywise becomes the thing you fear the most and haunts a group of children before they decide to take him down. The latest film adaption is incredible (Bill Skarsgard anyone!) and I’m hoping I’m going to love the book just as much as I love the film.

Books To Read

Home Going by Yaa Gyasi was another book I picked up. I have recently finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and wanted to delve a little deeper into slavery in America. Home Going is about 2 women; one who is sold into slavery and the other a wife of a slave trader. Each chapter focuses on a different descendent of the two women so we learn about their lives through the eyes of a relation. I’ve heard good things about Home Going so I have high expectations.

You may remember this book from such awful films starring Brad Pitt. World War Z the film adaption was dreadful but the book is supposed to be spectacular. World War Z by Max Brooks is, of course, about the zombie apocalypse and is written from the perspective of the survivors in an interview style. It follows the people who were there at the beginning of the outbreak and their take on events. Personally, I’m not into zombie things but World War Z doesn’t sound like the usual cliché zombie apocalypse book so I’m very intrigued by it.

Books To Read

A recent addition to my book wishlist is I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin and I already get to remove it as I now own it. I Am Not Your Negro is an accompaniment to the documentary directed by Raoul Peck. Civil rights activist James Baldwin started a project to tell the story of America through Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers; all of which are murdered black civil rights activists. James Baldwin died before his project was complete so Raoul Peck finished the project using James Baldwin’s voice and notes through the documentary. I haven’t watched I Am Not Your Negro (it’s currently on my watchlist ) but I’m in two minds as to whether I should read the book or watch the documentary first. Either way, this subject matter is right up my street!

With the recent shooting in America, it seems a little morbid to read a book on the subject but I’m doing it regardless. Every day, there are seven children and teenagers killed by guns in America and Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge tells the story of 10 deaths on November 23rd, 2013. These stories are of children and teenagers you probably never heard about, they flew under the radar because it’s such a common thing to happen; media outlets will not waste their time reporting on the deaths. Gary Younge chose these deaths at random and researched their family and their lives up until the day they died. Another Day in the Death of America is going to be an emotionally difficult and an incredibly frustrating read but it’s disturbingly interesting.

Books To Read

I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Amazon TV show The Man in the High Castle but I didn’t realize it was originally a book until my other half picked it up. In Philip K. Dick’s novel World War II went a bit wrong for the rest of the world and now the Nazis run New York (sorry New York-born rappers), the Japanese control California and the entire continent of African no longer exists. Hitler is incapacitated throughout the story so his hideous power is overshadowed by the men trying to take his place. The Man in the High Castle is a sci-fi novel which isn’t usually my cup of tea but I think I may make an exception this time around. I’ve also just discovered – through writing this post – that Philip K. Dick is the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the novel that inspired Blade Runner so there’s that random fact to run with. I didn’t like Blade Runner so this doesn’t bode well for me.

Finally, we have The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton. This was actually chosen by my other half as I’ve introduced him to the wonder of podcasts and he’s really getting into philosophical ones. The Consolations of Philosophy jumps into things such as lack of money, the pain of love, inadequacy, anxiety, the fear of failure and pressure to conform (just to completely quote the synopsis). I believe the book is designed to help us live our lives and as I’m forever bothered by 5 out of 6 of the above things, I should probably get stuck into The Consolations of Philosophy sooner than later.

I’m really excited about the variety of books I’ve chosen this time around. I’ve been researching present racism in America and historic slavery a lot recently so having physical material to further my personal studies is extremely appealing right now. My to be read pile is getting far too big but I need more books. If I stay in bed until 2 pm again next Saturday will I get more?
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