Wow. I just completed Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and I am completely undone. Blown away. My heart feels wrung and exposed, full of sadness and grief and also hope.
Let me start at the beginning.
If you follow me on Facebook, you might know that I was only two books away from meeting my Goodreads goal of reading 100 books in 2016. The Underground Railroad was #99, and it was magnificent. My best read of 2016. I say this with complete confidence, even knowing that I will read at least one more book before the year closes.
The Underground Railroad was the recipient of the National Book Award, so I was expecting greatness. But I wasn’t expecting to experience nearly a full range of the sadder, weightier human emotions: devastation, horror, heartsickness, anger, and disgust, among others.
Cora, the protagonist, is a slave on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Caesar, a fellow slave, approaches her about escaping the plantation, and after an altercation with her new “owner,” Cora agrees to the plan. What follows is Cora’s travels through the Underground Railroad, a literal railroad running underneath southern states. For Cora, and many of the other former slaves in the book, escaping the plantations where they were imprisoned does not equal freedom. Yes, Cora is free of the immediate threat that her former “owner,” Terrance Randall, presents, but she learns that other people, white and black, want to have control over her body.
But Cora is strong and resilient, and she has agency. She is relentless and she is powerful. And the people who help Cora along the way, black and white, show goodness, beauty, and agency of their own.
I read this book feverishly, racing through the pages because even though it’s a gorgeous read (in the sense that Whitehead has a gorgeous mastery of language), it’s also a page-turner. I was nervous about the ending, but I did not have to be. It was perfect.
We need books like this to remind us, to make us see.
Books like The Underground Railroad rip open those cushy narratives some people like to tell themselves at various times, about how slavery could not have been as bad as some people said because x slave was devoted to x master, even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Or the narratives that Gone with the Wind and Robert E. Lee are authentic representatives of a genteel south that was different from the south where African-Americans were forcibly subjugated, oppressed, mutilated, raped, and/or murdered and their families were torn apart. [In the interest of honesty, I should say that in my adolescence and perhaps going into early adulthood, I, too, romanticized Gone with the Wind and Lee and enjoyed them without critically confronting the legal, social, political, and economic oppressive systems that the characters/figures were part of.]
Or the cushy narrative that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery (which is sometimes propagated even in our textbooks). Or the narrative that racism ended with the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act or Obama’s presidential terms.
This is the time to re-visit what we’re contributing to the world and to interrogate what our values are. I’ve thought about this before reading Whitehead’s book (chiefly thanks to the year 2016, a painful, but hopefully revelatory year), but this book made me confront my own thoughts and actions anew. In the interest of honesty again, I’m deeply, truly sorry for the times in which I thought to myself or even said aloud that I didn’t think that x event or action was racist or doubted racism’s hold in the place that I lived. I don’t get to decide that.
I’m sorry for those times when I spoke out of white privilege. I’ve been trying to be better for a while now, and I’ll keep trying.
I am grateful to Colson Whitehead for this book. Please read it.
Images from Goodreads. Click on photos for links.
If You Need a Laugh: Try You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein, writer on Inside Amy Schumer. This book is in the same vein as Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, and Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). In You’ll Grow Out of It Klein tackles topics like wedding dress shopping, pumping in a room at her first Emmys while everyone else celebrated, and the differences between women ("poodles" versus "wolves"). I particularly loved her essay about how other people decide when women have moved from a “Ms.” to a “Ma’am”—a funny essay with the sting of the truth. This book is hilarious, smart, and totally worth your time. One of my favorite reads of 2016.
If You’re in the Mood for Romance: Try Jill Shalvis’s It Had to Be You, a book in her Lucky Harbor series. It Had to Be You is a contemporary romance that has all of the things that I’m looking for when I read romance: incredible chemistry, a convincing conflict, and a satisfying happily ever after. There’s more good news if you like this book: there are fourteen other books and/or novellas within the Lucky Harbor series. Enjoy!
If You Want to Re-Visit a Childhood or Teenage Classic: Try To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I don’t know about you all, but I re-read this book relatively recently for the first time in many, many years. I think that I was even more impressed with Lee’s towering literary achievement this time around than I was initially. The themes of this book particularly resonate with me now, when I’m taking a harder look at my own actions and biases and also thinking more about how I can stand up for what I believe in (love, acceptance, and unity; diversity should be celebrated; people should be free to say what they want, worship in whatever way they believe, love whomever they want, etc.) but also not write off the people that I love who voted for (or otherwise supported) a man whom I believe stands in direct opposition to my core values.
I read an NPR article that states that books can help us "bridge the political divide." To Kill a Mockingbird reminds me of the importance of empathy—which so many people have called for as a means of understanding the “other side’s” political views—but also that there’s a time when anger and conviction are necessary, too. We shouldn’t stop being angry at what Trump has said and continues to say, and what actions he continues to support because so much of it is racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, among other things.
What will you be reading this weekend?
Be the most popular person at your holiday party by giving a book-related present. No, I'm not kidding.*
I know that I don’t have to tell you this, but the holiday season is upon us and if you’re like me, you’re also slammed with a number of Birthdays, too. One of my favorite presents to give (and receive) is a book or a book-related item. This is chiefly because books are magical and I would like for my presents to be magical, if at all possible.
Below you’ll see a list of perfect gifts for a book-lover that I’ve read about/been gifted/gifted.
For the Body (Be Forewarned—these gifts are every bit as sexy as this category name suggests.)
A Book Scarf like the one in the upper left. One of my BFFs, Mary Catherine Starr, purchased this scarf for my Birthday several years ago and it’s one of my very favorites. The colors are easy to pair with others and I love knowing that I’m wearing words from a fantastic piece of English literature around my neck. I’ve gotten lots of compliments on the scarf, even if the person that I’m talking to doesn’t necessarily seem that excited about Pride and Prejudice. The seller offers other book scarf options, as well as gloves, pillows, etc.
One of the Shirts pictured above. Another way for a friend to wear his or her love of literature. These t-shirts also have excerpts from famous books on them, as well as an illustration which is related in some way to the content of the book. Anne (with an E) of Green Gables, anyone? Or how about a t-shirt with an excerpt written by the incredible Maya Angelou? I’ll take one of each!
For the House
A Literary-Inspired Candle: Makes the best kind of candle. Try the Jane Austen Library Tin Candle—another gift from the divine Mary Catherine Starr. This candle smells of gardenia, tuberose, and jasmine and burning it makes me feel like I’m extraordinarily witty and have a mother and two sisters who are trying to ruin my life. (I posted this blog entry and then realized that I'd forgotten about Mary. Oops.). Or, you could purchase the Old Book Smell Candle (pictured above). This candle has been listed on a few websites that I’ve perused. While I haven’t tried the candle, I have to say that I’m intrigued.
A Fabulous Set of Bookends: When my husband was courting me, he bought me a set of beautiful elephant bookends as part of an anniversary present. I still remember how wonderful it was to receive something so beautiful and so beautifully frivolous; they were something that I would have never splurged on at that particular moment of my life. Search on Etsy and you can find virtually any kind, from gorgeous geodes to mountains to whales.
A Print: I’m loving the simplicity and beauty of these prints (pictured above). Buy one for your friend and watch them be inspired!
A Book Ornament: This is a Harry Potter ornament on Etsy that I have my eyes on. It’s “Made with the pages of discarded and damaged books no longer suitable for resale.”
For the Book Collection
A Special Edition of a Favorite Book: If your sweetheart has a penchant for a particular book or author, consider purchasing a first edition. Remember when Chandler buys Joey’s gf The Velveteen Rabbit? That’s all the proof that I need that first editions make amazing gifts, but please gift responsibly, people! Otherwise you risk breaking up your best friend’s relationship and spending quiet reflective time stuck in a box. (Thanks http://friends.wikia.com/wiki/Kathy for a reminder of how that all went down.) Abebooks.com is a site that I’ve used to buy a first edition before, although I have also had some luck browsing antique stores and even Goodwill.
Or how about a gorgeous copy of their cherished favorite book? Shout-out to my best friends Mary Catherine and Laura Whitaker, because they bought me a stunning set of cloth covered classics several years ago. I couldn't find mine, White's Fine Editions, sold online anywhere, but try these on for size. If your intended recipient is a fan of Harry Potter, think about buying the illustrated copy of the first or second books in the series.
A Library Stamp: This is for the person who alphabetizes all of their books by last name and lends his or her books with a mixture of generosity, fear, and resentment. I’m definitely not that kind of person. Other examples may be found on Etsy.
A New Book: I was a member of English Lit. graduate programs for six years and no matter how many close readings we did or how many times I read a particular text, I never lost my belief that books can change people’s lives. Consider picking up a book that you think that your friend or family member will like and you might have the pleasure of knowing that you introduced them to a new favorite. I recently gifted people with a subscription to the Book of the Month club which allows my giftees to select one hardback book a month from a curated list chosen by a small group of well-known authors, actors/actresses, and other personalities. (Spoiler alert, Dan: you just bought me a three-month subscription for Christmas! SO sweet of you!).
And don’t forget that you can be creative if you’re browsing your local bookstore or Amazon. You can buy a traditional book, or you can buy a volume of poetry (check out the fantastic Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate. Her volume Native Guard is phenomenal). Or what about a graphic novel or comic book?
For the World
Donate to a Charity that Supports Reading: If you appreciate a good book, think about donating to a domestic or international charity which supports reading and literacy. My aforementioned BFF Laura works at the Carnegie Center, of Lexington, Kentucky, and they offer amazing writing and reading programs for the people there. How about supporting them?
Here are a couple other articles with more ideas: https://www.bustle.com/articles/126582-12-amazing-book-and-literacy-charities-that-are-changing-the-world and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/11/book-charities-that-help-kids_n_6817484.html.
Do you have any other fabulous ideas? I'd love to read them! Happy shopping, everyone!
*Please note that I have not personally tried all of these products or charities (any exceptions will be clearly stated). This is not a sponsored post.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.