March Book Review Club: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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When Caesar first invites Cora to run away from the Randall plantation, she says no. She is cautious, like her grandmother, Ajarry, who learned caution through her own tragedies. The second time he asks, she says yes, because she is also independent, like her mother Mabel, who was the only slave to successfully run away from the Randalls. Caesar and Cora join the underground railroad, which is a literal underground train in this novel. Cora knows little about the country, and she finds each state to be a completely different world. Her birth state of Georgia is a land of misery and evil landowners. South Carolina wears a progressive face, as Cora learns to read and live as a free woman there, but it has secrets. North Carolina is a nightmare police state, where runaway slaves are routinely hanged in the hanging tree in the town square along with those who aid them, and children turn in their parents to the gallows and neighbors turn on neighbors. Tennessee is a cursed land, ravaged by wildfires and yellow fever. Indiana is a haven, where Cora can farm the land and read books.

While Cora is on the run throughout the country, the infamous slave catcher, Ridgeway is chasing her. Ridgeway never got over his inability to capture Mabel, Cora’s mother, so he pursues Cora with all of his energy, even after Cora’s former owner dies, eliminating the possibility of a cash award. Ridgeway has a diabolical sense of irony. He purchased exactly one slave in his life, Homer, who he immediately freed and taught to read and capture runaway slaves. He is also a firm believer in Manifest Destiny. He understands the Trail of Tears and slavery to be injustices, but he simply doesn’t care, as both are in line with his vision for the country.

I did enjoy The Underground Railroad, and I do recommend it. It was creative and well-written. It is primarily written from Cora’s point of view in a close third person narration, but short chapters scattered throughout the novel portray the POV of other characters, so we also get stories of Ridgeway, of Caesar, of corrupt doctors, and of wannabe missionaries. The characters are all well-developed. Some are kind; others are monstrous; and all of them are part of a world where there are no good choices, only difficult and dangerous ones.  While this is a good read, it is a difficult one, as there is no justice for many of the characters.

Although it may be a dark book about a terrible time in our nation’s history, The Underground Railroad is a good reminder that Americans are creative and resourceful in the face of injustice. We may not have runaway slaves being rounded up in our current age, but a hunt for undocumented immigrants is on, as civil rights and women’s rights both move backwards and religious freedoms are under attack, making both creativity and sacrifice as necessary as they were in the nineteenth century.

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FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

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Book Review:  The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

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Told from the perspective of the prophet Nathan, The Secret Chord is a historical novel about the Biblical King David.  The novel begins just before David meets Bathsheba, when a restless King David orders Nathan to pay visits to his mother, brother, and first wife in order to write down David’s life story.  We first get to know David through these narratives and also through Nathan’s own story of how he first met David.  When Nathan returns to court, it is to learn of David’s affair with Bathsheba.  From that point, the story of the golden boy turned king becomes a tragedy.

I was excited to read this as Geraldine Brooks is one of my favorite authors, and I have read all of her historical fiction and one of her nonfiction books. What I admire most about her is how she manages to capture time periods that are so very different from our own time and culture, and I never feel like she is modernizing her characters or their points of view as many historical novelists do. I also love how all of her stories focus on faith in some way. Her characters are always perfectly developed and her writing is beautiful.

What Brooks has done very well in The Secret Chord is capture the earthiness of David: the shepherd boy accustomed to the quiet loneliness of fields, the young man who lived a nomadic and crude existence on the run from Saul, and the king given to excesses in women and food.  She delights in his contradictions:  both poet and warrior, both worshipper and murderer.

The prophet Nathan is an effective foil to David.  The two men’s stories are linked, but in nature, they are very different. Nathan is a soldier only because that is what is expected of men of his time.  He dislikes David’s refusal to show any mercy in battle, and he lives a quiet and celibate life. I didn’t like how Nathan was portrayed as serving David, as opposed to serving God, but otherwise I loved the character of Nathan, who was much more likable than David.

I love how this fills out all of the “whys” of the Biblical story.  Why was David not at war with his men when he first saw Bathsheba?  Why was he so easily overlooked by his family?  In some cases, I felt the need to go back to the Bible story to work out which details were in the Scripture, and which were Brooks’ invention.  The world she creates feels ancient, and the stories that are her own invention feel natural.  She does use spellings that are unconventional to me –Saul is Shaul,  Jonathan is Yonatan, Solomon is Shlomo, etc.– which I needed to get used to.

Although I love Geraldine Brooks, and this book has so many merits, I did struggle with it because of the violence. The violence isn’t gratuitous, given the nature of the book.  She is writing about Old Testament events, which are full of blood and absolutes, and I tend to not read the Old Testament histories when I want an uplifting devotional.  I do not stomach violence well in books or movies, so even though the violence was essential to the story, I did not like it.

The Secret Chord is a very intriguing novel, and it will appeal to fans of Brooks’ previous work, and possibly fans of the The Red Tent (although this is definitely a more masculine story than that one).  It will not please any fundamentalists as the David/Jonathan relationship is definitely portrayed as being romantic.  It also won’t appeal to anyone strongly opposed to violence in fiction.

I do recommend this novel in spite of my hesitations regarding the violence.  Just don’t read it while eating because there will inevitably be a scene where a skewered person’s entrails are spilling out of them like ribbon.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.