The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Our book club has always been a great group of girls. Our newest member, Kim, is proving to be a wonderful addition. She came in at the perfect time. We’d just finished a full rotation of each existing member choosing a book. When Kim chose The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead for us to read, I knew in that moment that she’d fit right in.  

I am of the belief that everyone should diversify their reading with stories of other times and other cultures. Kim really brought this to the table.

The Underground Railroad was a hard read for me. Being of an empathic nature, the treatment of slaves described in the book really got to me. I’d read for a while and have to put down the book to cry a bit.

The book is based from different point of views. The main ones are of a slave named Cora, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, and a slave named Caesar. There are others throughout the book that feed the storyline and give better understanding to the inner workings of the characters. Cora was born a slave. Her mother and grandmother were slaves on the Randal plantation. The Randal brothers are a hateful duo. The most despicable brother takes over the plantation with all slaves included at his brother’s death. He makes an example of the slaves, subjecting them to horrifying methods of torture. To make matters worse, if a friend or family member of the tortured slave shows any sort of emotion, they are beaten along with their loved one. All members of our club agreed that this was how a slave owner would discourage relationships among slaves so that they would not band together and/or plot runaway attempts.

We discussed how the slaves in the book almost had a social hierarchy among them. There was social standing as well as survival of the fittest. The weakest links were sent to live in their own house called the Hob.

When Cora witnesses an especially vicious beating of a slave, she decides she’s had enough. Caesar had come to her before and asked her to leave with him. At the time, it seemed ludicrous. However, the more she mulls it over, the more sense it makes. When she was a child, Cora’s mother escaped the plantation and was the only slave so far to successfully to do so.

As Cora and Caesar make their escape, another slave named Lovey tags along. A series of unfortunate events leads to Lovey being taken and an even bigger man hunt gets underway for the escapees.

Cora and Caesar make it to South Carolina using The Underground Railroad. This brings a bit of the fantastical to the book in that the railroad is an actual railroad that moves through tunnels from location to location.  

Under assumed identities, they are allowed to learn and hold jobs. While everything seems to be going great, an unseen storm is brewing on the horizon.

In a turn of events, Cora has to flee and is unsure about the fate of her friend Caesar. Just as she is unsure about the fate of Lovey and her mother.

Ridgeway is a slave catcher. The only slave thus far to ever evade him is Cora’s mother, Mabel. It has been his humiliation and what has kept him up at night. This makes him all the more determined to catch Cora and her running mate. He and his men catch up with Cora and have her in their grips when things shift from their favor. The author does a nice job of switching perspectives and seeing things, however wrong, from Ridgeway’s point of view.

This book is ripe with nail biting scenarios. You find yourself rooting for Cora and hoping that her life has some semblance of happiness. Her story and the supporting stories in the book are some that everyone in our book club agreed will stick with you. It is a raw, honest view of slavery and what those in that time period lived with.

Learning the fates of Mabel, Caesar, and Lovey bring suspence and some closure to the book while others leave your heart in turmoil.

It is a great group of stories that intertwine  to make up a powerful book. History books tell us about the evils of slavery and the horrors endured by those who lived it. Seeing it from the perspective of a slave leaves necessary wounds on your heart and helps tie what African Americans have dealt with in their ongoing quest for equality. The Underground Railroad makes you think, makes you feel, and while not to be undertaken lightly, is an important read. 

Quotes:

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others.

The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.


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Words

“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.”

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Words are easily my favorite thing. They make up all my other favorite things: books, stories, and poetry. They seem to be the fastest way to my heart. Words can make something from nothing. Empires have been built on words.

Laws are created with words.

Love has bloomed from words.

Wars have been started over words.

They are used to motivate, to militarize, to organize, and to separate.

I hear people say all the time, “They’re just words.” I’m living proof that some of the most painful injuries can be caused by words.

Life is described by words.

I’ve read articles and stories of the blind and how they are better able to perceive the world because of being able to read braille.

The deaf are able to learn where they have not been able before. The animated teacher’s mouth movements can make sense when they are transcribed. Words are made into motion as someone translates speech to ASL.

I use words in everything. I use them to explain, to understand, to evoke, to heal.

Words make up the sonnet, the manifesto, the suicide note, and the battlecry.

Emotions and worlds come to life as words pass the lips or spill across the page. They are a confession of love, an apology, a last chance, a request, and sometimes, the last memory people have of us after we’re gone.

Whether in ink, by mouth, on a screen, or locked away and confined to your heart, words are my most favorite thing. 

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Stephen King is known for horror and suspense. However, for me, The Gunslinger is more a mystery of sorts or maybe the building up to a grand mystery. It is a different creature than the King books I’ve read in the past. It has a lot to offer the reader; like a really great gun fight scene that your imagination can run wild with. It still has the powerful descriptions, a bit of gore, and the wonderful macabre things we expect from the mind of Stephen King. For me, it is his rabbit hole.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” – Stephen King, The Gunslinger

Roland Deschain is not a hero. He is not a good guy, but he’s not a bad guy. He is a determined guy and a very complicated guy. He is everything I could ask for out of a character. He is the last Gunslinger. In a world that seems to be an alternate or dystopian future of ours, he is on a journey to seek out the man in black and kill him. The Gunslinger’s world is not so different from our own. You have those on drugs or devil grass as it is in The Gunslinger. You have a religious leader that makes me think of Westboro Baptist Church. You have crazies who follow the insane religious leader, and you have those who are possessed by something unknown. Sometimes, in our world as well as Roland’s, those last two intersect.

“My name is John Chambers. You can call me Jake.” – Stephen King, The Gunslinger

On his journey, Roland meets many people. He finds a town, he finds a lover, he finds a hippie farmer, and after all this, he finds Jake. I swear if I could pull a character from a book and into reality, it would be Jake. I would adopt him. He is a young boy who got mixed into something he can’t understand, and all he has in the world at this point in his story is Roland, the rough gunslinger who will not be deterred from his mission. Jake was in his own world, in his own time, minding his own business when he is shoved into Roland’s path.

Roland became a gunslinger at a very young age. He did so in a fit of rage that led him to the challenge to receive his guns. Roland relives stories about his childhood while traveling with Jake and gives us a glimpse at how he became who he is.

“I am the furthest minion of the Dark Tower. Earth has been given into my hand.” – Stephen King, The Gunslinger

The man in black is part of the mystery. He is always just out of the gunslinger’s reach. When you read of the actions of the man in black, you realize how truly evil his character is. He brings a drug addict back to life just so that he can prolong his suffering. Being a seer, he gives a barren woman a child that he knows will face an end. He does both of these things without a second thought and only to bring destruction. Roland seeks to end this and end him.

“Go then, there are other worlds than these.” – Stephen King, The Gunslinger

I hope after this review that you are standing at the rabbit hole. I hope you are intrigued enough to take the plunge. Make no mistake that this book is only the rabbit hole, though. This is only the beginning of the journey to rid the worlds of the man in black and finally see The Dark Tower. I am not half done with this series of books, but it has been a fantastical and suspenseful journey thus far. Be ready if you intend to venture into the rabbit hole. I recommend that you do, and if you do, then go, for there are other worlds than these.

***The remainder of this post contains SPOILERS. Plot and otherwise. If you intend to read this book, please stop at this point.

The Gunslinger begins with Roland trailing the man in black across the desert. He and his donkey are worn to the bone and suffering from dehydration and heat. Stephen King uses some of the descriptive writing here that I am so fond of. They come across a small house where a dweller lives. He offers shelter and food. Roland accepts and sleeps. The dweller, Brown, wakes Roland to let him know that the donkey has died. The man has a raven named Zoltan that mostly spews nonsense and silly things.

While visiting, Roland tells Brown the story of himself and the town called Tull. Entering town, he finds that it is not much more than a few buildings and a saloon. He goes into the saloon and meets the local druggie who is on the wasting drug they call devil weed. He takes the barmaid as a lover, and she fills him in on some of the locals. She tells him how the man in black came in on the same day the druggie, Nort, died. She explains that the man in black brought the dead man back to life.

Roland’s lover, Allie, tells of the local crazy religious leader whom she says preaches poison religion. The woman, Sylvia, calls Roland an interloper and turns the town’s people against him. She has been touched by the man in black. Between the living dead druggie and the crazy religious lady, the trap set for Roland is set into motion and ends with the one of the best written gunfights I’ve read to date.

Roland moves on and comes to a way station where he finds the boy, Jake. He goes down into a cellar and faces a demon. He leaves with Jake and travels through mountains and tunnels. They come across slow mutants and other issues. Roland tells Jake the story of his youth and how he earned his guns and became a gunslinger at an unheard of age. Jake comes to realize that if he continues on with Roland that he will die. Roland knows this as well.

In the end, Jake is lost and Roland faces the man in black, but this is far from the end of the saga. Read on, my friends.