James Gault reviews The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Yet another historical novel, set in the Southern States of the USA before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. It’s the story of the network of clandestine escape routes used to help escaped slaves reach safety. It wasn’t a railroad, but a collection of abolitionist sympathisers, safe houses and transport arrangements.
The main value of this novel is in the importance of its theme. I don’t mean to suggest by this that the novel is anything other than a brilliantly written and engrossing story. It tells of one young girl’s convoluted path to freedom, of hope followed by disappointment and despair, of lives lost and lives saved. It’s an emotional tale that cannot but move the reader, all the more so because it is written in a journalistic style which renders a stark credibility to the events. Read it and you read a great story.
But this novel is more than that. The evils of racism and slavery should never be forgotten, and novels like this keep them in our minds should a false sense of modern moral progress lead us to let them slide from our memory. This novel shines a stark beam of light on the hypocrisy of those eighteenth century ‘gentlemen’ in straw hats and white suits, throwing away their moral compasses to feed their greed and self-interest. And let us not kid ourselves we are dealing with an event of the past, finished and done with. The same violation of human rights went on for another two centuries, and is still with us today. That is why you must read this great novel.
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