I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead‘s historical novel, The Underground Railroad. It is a remarkable work, worthy of all the accolades. I had been eagerly awaiting it having been a fan of Whitehead’s earlier work (especially The Intuitionist and John Henry Days) and it is everything the critics say it is, monumental, original, and brilliant. Working off historical facts, Whitehead has created a profound work of fiction. Like others it makes me think of the magical realism of García Márquez as represented in his One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is intense and is taking me time to read it as I have to take breaks as I go. But it is worth it — I can’t recommend it enough.
I also recommend Kathryn Schulz‘s New Yorker essay, “The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad” where she considers Whitehead’s novel and Ben Winter’s alternate history novel, Underground Airlines within the context of history, historians, and how it is all playing out today. Most powerful to me was her thoughtful commentary on our current way of considering this particular past. She concludes:
One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within. The great virtue of a figurative railroad is that, when someone needs it—and someone always needs it—we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose.
Powerful, powerful stuff.