Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

Summary of Work
Cora is a slave girl on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, ran away and was never found, and she had been left alone as a young girl. Her grandmother, Ajarry, had a plot of land that she used to garden and had passed on to Mabel. Cora determined she should keep that space as well, and when a man tried to put a doghouse on it, she tore it down with a hatchet. She was considered pariah there from then on, and placed in the Hob, the lodging cabin for the women who were considered odd or wrong in some way.

On a celebration for a slave man’s birthday, a slave named Caesar approaches her and asks if she will make a run North with him. At first she thinks he’s crazy or trying to trick her, but after being beaten for protecting a slave boy from the plantation owner’s drunken brother Terrance and then learning that her master is dead and Terrance has taken over running the plantation, she agrees to go with Caesar. As they try to leave, Lovey, a young slave girl, runs after them and insists on going. They make it through the swamp and are in the woods when they are ambushed by slave catchers. Lovey is caught, but Cora and Caesar escape, critically injuring a young boy of 12. When they get to town where there is a station master for the Underground Railroad, they learn that the boy they hurt is likely to die, and there is a mob looking for them.

They escape to South Carolina, where they are given new names and life stories, and Cora, now Bessie, first works for a family and watches the children, and then is hired to work as an actor in the museum for American History. She acts out African life, then the passage on a slave ship, and finally plantation life. She feels awkward and ashamed over it, but learns that she has the power of staring and forcing white people to realize that she can look at them just as they can look at her, but perhaps her gaze has more power. Caesar works at a factory, and they get to where they are comfortable with life and decide to stay, even though there are many trains that would take them farther north. Cora enjoys learning to read and having her own money and a bed to sleep in as well as a black community to enjoy. However, soon after making that decision, Sam, the barkeep who is also the station master, warns them that they shouldn’t get too comfortable: there is talk of forced sterilization of black people. Cora knows this, having gone to the doctor previously and felt like she was going to be forced to choose their “birth control” method.

Not long after Sam’s warning, Cora overhears that there is a slave catcher named Ridgeway searching for a pair of runaways who murdered a boy. This scares her, as she knows who Ridgeway is: he’s a famous slave catcher who wasn’t able to catch her mother, and he has a vendetta against her because of it. She runs to Sam, who is at the bar, and he tells her to go hide in the house at the platform, and he’ll try to get to Caesar. However, before Sam gets home, the slave catchers get there first and burn his house down, leaving Cora trapped. She doesn’t know how long she starves for before there is a small train coming down the line. It passes without stopping and she runs after it until it stops. It is a maintenance train, and she learns that the Georgia line is shut down and that the trains to this station have been cancelled, so he cannot help her more than drop her off at the next station, which is in North Carolina.

That station is technically closed as well, and black people are being hunted and lynched and placed on the “freedom trail” to rot in the trees for miles and miles. The station master hides her in his home for months because there is no way to get her out. She witnesses a lynching and it sickens her, and every week there is a town picnic with this ritual. Watchers regularly check houses, but she is well hidden in the attic. She spends time reading and gets better at it, and although she has read the Bible, she prefers almanacs. Then, one day, she accidentally tips over her chamber pot and she worries that the housekeeper, who is not one of the abolitionists, might have heard her. Nothing happens. Then she gets sick, and the man’s wife brings her down into a bedroom to help her get better and they send the housekeeper away, claiming that the husband has a disease that’s very communicable and they can’t have her getting it or being in the house, doctor’s orders.

That Friday when the picnic comes, the wife of the station master tells her that she can stay in the room and rest as long as she stays away from the window. She is grateful until their home is unexpectedly raided by watchers and she is discovered hiding under the bed. Ridgeway has led them. The station master and his wife are tied to the tree and presumably burned to death, and she is plunged into bondage again. They are going to Missouri to catch another slave before they head back to Georgia: Ridgeway hadn’t expected to find her but had just wanted to capture whoever was there with the Underground Railroad. He talks to her, and when they get another slave man, Jasper, they are constantly hitting him because he won’t stop singing. Ridgeway ends up shooting him and splattering Cora with his blood.

They stop in Tennessee, which has been largely destroyed by yellow fever and fires, and Ridgeway and his black freeman, Homer, make her put on a new dress and go to dinner with Ridgeway. A black man sees her in chains and in the nice dress and shoes and won’t stop staring. After they eat and she uses the outhouse, they go back and travel again, because their other companion refuses to stay where he thinks there is yellow fever. That night, the man grabs Cora out of the cart and cage in order to have sex with her, but Ridgeway is on to him and stops him. During the fight she considers running, but doesn’t. Then, three black men show up with guns and a fight ensues to set her free. Homer escapes, the other man dies, and Ridgeway is badly beaten and chained in the forest.

She escapes again on the Underground Railroad to Indiana, where she works on the Valentine plantation: Valentine is a biracial man who looks white and was able to inherit land from his father, which he sold and then moved further West to buy another plantation where he could harbor fugitive slaves and work with the Underground Railroad to ferry people further north if they desired. Cora stays there, asking people if they have seen her mother. No one has, and Cora goes on hating her mother for leaving her. She also feels guilty about all the people who have died for her: station masters, the 12-year-old boy, Lovey, Caesar, and possibly Sam. Meanwhile, she learns how to read and write much better than she had, and she lives a very free life in comparison to what she had done previously. Sam shows up one day, and she is thrilled to learn that he is alive. He is going to head West after one last job for the Underground Railroad. She falls in love with Royal, one of the men who saves her. One evening, he takes her to an old house and they go into the cellar; he shows her the old station there that is no longer in use. He doesn’t even know where it leads. He wants to show her because she has been on the railroad so much and had such a complicated journey. Royal is always helping with the Underground Railroad, and he brings her almanacs when he can. His last gift to her is the next year’s almanac. She lets him kiss her and she tells him about her life, apologizing when she gets to the part where she was gang raped. He tells her she shouldn’t be sorry for anything, but that those men who have done these things to her should.

One evening during a plantation debate meeting (they are regularly held with special guests and feasts), there is a raid. The white townspeople, who have built around the plantation, hate that there are prosperous black people next to them, and they hate them more because they know that there are fugitive slaves there. The white people combined with many slave catchers start shooting into the church and first kill the speaker whom they hate, and next Royal when he goes to aid him. Cora holds Royal in her hands as he dies, and he tells her to run to the station he showed her and live free. One of the Valentine sons tears her from Royal’s dead body to get her out of the gunfire, and when she gets out, Ridgeway and Homer catch her. Homer was dressed like a plantation worker, and had been in the meeting. She fights them but is put in chains again, and Ridgeway forces her to tell him where the Underground Railroad station is. She shows him, ashamed that she is revealing the secret to a slave catcher. Thinking of Royal’s trust in her, she grabs onto Ridgeway and shoves them both down the stairs, to the dismay of Homer. The fall breaks Ridgeway’s femur bone and has it sticking out of the leg, and his head also cracks his head open. Cora also is injured, but nowhere near as badly. Homer goes to Ridgeway and forgets about Cora as Ridgeway asks Homer to write down some things.

Cora gets the cart going and rides away down the line until she can go no further and has to sleep. In the morning she is too sore to maneuver the cart and so walks the rest of the way. She comes out in the woods, but she isn’t sure where she is. She cleans herself in the river and takes some water, and then sits by a road. There, three carts pass her, and a black man is in the last one. He offers to take her with him to the West, and she accepts.

This novel also has vignettes throughout it that tell about the lives of individual characters, including Mabel. Mabel made it through the swamp before she felt guilty about leaving her daughter. She knew she could make it back before the alarm sounded, and she determined to head back, happy with her little taste of freedom. But on the way back she gets bitten by a poisonous snake and dies on a patch of moss in the swamp.

Discussion of Work
This novel is a form of abolitionist narrative: a commentary on slavery and on white supremacy, but also a commentary on the courageous and honorable acts of a few white people and what good that it does. Cora, the main character, spends a lot of time wondering why white people who have good and prosperous lives would risk everything for her and other black slaves: everyone she asks tells her that she should know.

Whitehead also refuses to eliminate historically accurate language from his novel, using racial slurs and other oppressive and racist epithets in his work as dialogue: the linguistic choices may seem unnecessary to some, but it adds an important layer of authenticity to the work to display the horrors of the slave trade and plantation life as well as the extreme dangers and fears that came with being a fugitive slave. It allows for a more historically accurate novel, as this may be said to be historical fiction as well as abolitionist.

Whitehead experiments with nonlinear narrative as well, putting in biographical narratives to break up the main narrative. He often does this at times when the tension is high: when Cora has just been caught or when there is rising tension about her safety. The discussions of the white plantation owner Terrance Randall is particularly jolting, because it includes detailed descriptions of how he had slaves tortured and killed for running away. These details do not come altogether directly with the biographical narrative of the Randalls, but come as a combination of the biographical narrative and the main narrative of the story. While at first the choice to break up the narrative in this way may be frustrating for readers, what it highlights is that no matter who’s story is being told, the horrors of slavery were the same everywhere, and affected everyone it touched, white or black person.

One particularly important scene is where Cora learns the power of her gaze. It is reminiscent of bell hooks’ discussion of the black gaze on the white subject; she states that it is unnerving for white people because they never think of black people as agents that can look upon them, but objects to be looked upon. When they discover that black people can look at them, it upsets their supremacist attitudes because they are forced to realize that even enslaved or without full rights, they are capable of being active agents and of asserting their power for either agency or freedom, or both. This also happens regularly throughout the novel with dance. The slaves put on a specific dancing show for the masters, which is almost mocking in its attitudes, in order to please their owners. But when the masters are away, their dancing completely changes in its form and tone, becoming a way to express their freedom to move their bodies in some small way and to engage with their community. The black dancing body has the same power, then, that the black gaze has, but with a slight difference: white people aren’t always aware of the parody or mocking going on with the dancing, meaning that it gives a momentary power reversal where they have power over their masters, mocking them and judging them and asserting freedom and agency without ever being reprimanded or punished for it.

Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God

Erdrich, Louise. Future Home of the Living God. HarperCollins, 2017.

Summary of Work
Cedar is insistent that she is going to go meet her birth mother on the reservation for the Ojibwe people, but her adoptive mother and father, Sarah and Glen, are worried about her going. There is social unrest, and it may collapse the nation. Still, she insists on going, and she meets her family and tells them that she’s four months pregnant. She met a man at her Church and they unexpectedly fell in love and slept with each other in the basement of the church after a performance of the nativity. Everyone is happy for her, but also worried.

Evolution has started running backwards, and there are rumors that pregnant women have children who are primitive versions of humans. Soon, the government mandates through a new addition to the Patriot Act that all women are to turn themselves in and if they do so voluntarily, they will be given the best rooms and care in the hospitals. Cedar locks herself in her house with provisions and tradable goods, mainly cigarettes and booze, and does not leave the house. She notices that all of a sudden, there are no brown skinned people in the news or on TV anymore, and she wonders if there are any left outside either. Her partner, Mike, keeps calling but she won’t answer, so he comes over and pounds on the door until she lets him in. They talk, and he tells her that he wants to stay with her and protect her because the government is now offering rewards for turning in pregnant women. Cedar goes nearly insane being forced to stay inside, and she convinces Mike to let her go with him to get Subway sandwiches. While she is sitting in the car, she watches the cops take a pregnant woman off the street and beat her husband while their daughter looks on and bystanders hide her. It traumatizes Cedar, and she stays inside. She accidentally lets herself be seen by the mailman Hero, but he hides her and tells her to stay inside because the government officials will catch her.

By this time the US proper has dissolved and all governments are regionally run; all street signs are renamed biblical verses. Mike forges marriage papers for them so he can register their home. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman who calls herself Mother keeps popping up on Cedar’s computer screen, even after they unplug the internet, bury their cell phones, and break the computer. One day, Mike leaves, and a woman forcibly enters the home and steals Cedar away. She is forced into a hospital, where they drug her. When her roommate Agnes tells her to stop taking her “vitamins,” she comes to and realizes how terrible her condition is. She watches Agnes try to break out and fail, and then she is whisked away to an operating room to have her child, and no one will tell Cedar what happened. She gets a new Asian roommate, who never speaks and spends her time unraveling blankets to create yarn and then a rope so they can escape out the window. Cedar helps her do this, and in the process, she learns from her mother Sarah, who is undercover trying to save pregnant women, that Mike is the one who turned her in after he was captured and tortured. Sarah helps them escape, but not before they have to murder a nurse to save themselves. Tia, the Asian roommate, has her baby in a cave, but it is stillborn. When they emerge from the cave, Tia insists that she go back with her husband because she is no longer pregnant and not a target, and Sarah takes Cedar to the reservation, where Eddie, Cedar’s stepfather, is now government head.

She is happy there, despite her confinement, and she feels safe. Sarah is upset over her daughter’s pregnancy, and also reveals that Glen is actually her biological father; it was one of his short-livid dalliances. Eddie gets Cedar forged tribal papers and gives her back her birth name: Mary Potts. Then, one night when she is sleeping on her half-sister’s floor, she hears someone come in. She hides in the mess of clothes on the floor, and is hidden so well that when the woman, who sounds just like the woman from the computer screen, comes in the room search for her, she cannot find her. Soon after that, things spiral downward. She has been going out now and again with tribal family members because Eddie has guaranteed that the government is not taking the tribal women because they are protected. In fact, Eddie has been reclaiming original tribal lands with success. But one night Mike comes and gets her and asks her to go with him. He explains that she is highly valued because she is carrying one of the originals, an untainted genetic child, and if she goes with him they can start their own following and government. She says he is crazy, and he leaves without her. Then, when she and her biological mother are praying at the statue of a saint, Cedar is again kidnapped, this time by poor travelers who are in need of money and want to turn her in for the reward.

Cedar is placed in a prison facility in Stillwater, which serves as an insemination facility. She learns that women are being picked up for minor or imagined infractions if they are of childbearing age and being forcibly inseminated. They are all required to have their pictures taken, and Cedar comes to learn that is because when they die, which they all do from pregnancy complications caused by the reverse evolution, their pictures are put up on a wall in the commons area. During one of her appointments she meets a woman who had helped her to escape the first time, but she realizes that this time there will be no escape. Instead, she asks Jesse to look after her baby, which she promises to do. Cedar gives birth successfully, but she barely gets to see her child, and her heart is damaged from the delivery and she barely survives. When she recovers, she is not released from the facility, as was originally promised, but forcibly inseminated. The story ends with her still writing her story to her child, who she hopes will someday read her story.

Discussion of Work
While largely considered a failure of a novel for Louise Erdrich, the novel does pose some intriguing questions about female reproductive rights. A dystopic science fiction novel, the narrative explores the personhood of women at a time when the species is endangered. Women become objects rather than people, first promised some sort of decent care for turning themselves in if pregnant, and then having the tables turned on them as the situation worsens. One of the important points which is subtly noted throughout the novel is that the majority of the women who are taken are people of color: white people are largely exempt from the government mandates, although white people who find a problem with the forcible detainment and insemination of women are eliminated or forced into the system.

While it is not fully pursued, the issue of dual identity is broached. It is only when Cedar decides that she wants to embrace her full identity that, that identity is stripped from her, as she is stripped of the chance to learn more than she does. The novel is an experiment with female identity: is it motherhood, fertility, sex, or something altogether different? This is also a set of questions asked about the children these women are forced to have: what will their status be? Will they be treated similarly to how we treat endangered animal species? Global warming and how humans change nature is another subtle theme, with a discussion of how the situation came to be. The change started when there was no more winter and the glaciers were gone, the continental ice and permafrost releasing bacteria or some sort of toxin into the air which causes the reverse evolution.

This is also a discussion of how the world ends, which, as Cedar keeps being surprised over, is not very chaotic. People keep going about their daily lives and adapting to the biological changes to their food and the environment around them. Essentially, the world does not go out violently, but quietly, with only one specific group of people, women of childbearing age, affected by the reproduction issue.