American Stories Book Group: Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad Arrives For Discussion November 18

By Nancy Snyder

Consider including the fourth Saturday of every month during the early afternoon hours of 1:30 – 2:45 p.m. on your calendar as a regular event.

You will be glad you did. That is the time for the American Stores Reading group that meets at the Pico Branch Library Annex. On November 18, when American Stories will be discussing Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, readers will be debating a unique novel that questions the foundations of American society.

As the many readers and library enthusiasts of Santa Monica know, our public library is host to innumerable programs and book groups that benefit our community.

Three years ago when the Pico Branch Library opened its doors, the American Stories Book group began a few months after the opening to discuss American Literature that places an emphasis on the social justice issues of our time.

American Stories reads both fiction and non-fiction that challenges our preconceived ideas of racism and immigration; of the inequities in our society and how to bridge them. It is an innovative reading group in search of understanding our twenty-first century country and our place within this society.

For the past three years, we have read such titles as The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian, If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Times, and The Plague Of Doves by Louise Erdrich.

As facilitator of American Stories, I was very impressed by the comment of the highly esteemed literary critic and writing teacher extraordinaire, John Gardener. Gardener wrote, “In a democratic society, where every individual opinion counts, literature’s incomparable ability to instruct, to make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear, to spotlight falsehood, insincerity, and foolishness – literature’s incomparable ability to make us understand – ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down the barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing. Literature in America does fulfill those obligations.”

The Underground Railroad is a choice novel that brings the horrors of slavery and its toxic legacy on our country to the reader. These are subjects often avoided, and understandably so: the violence of slavery is a hard subject to approach.

Colson Whitehead tells the story of slavery through Cora, a fifteen year old slave on a Georgia plantation. Cora’s sense of alienation and abandonment began when her mother escaped the plantation when Cora was just a young child – an act that shaped Cora’s sensibilities for the remainder of the story.

When she does escape, Cora seals her fate as a fugitive who can never return to the plantation when she kills a white man in self-defense.

Cora is then introduced to the Underground Railroad, but it is not the Underground Railroad that was the network of passageways and safe houses used by runaway slaves to reach the free North from their slaveholding states.

It is that type of railroad, but something else entirely.

In Colson Whitehead’s grand novel, the Underground Railroad is also reached by the trap doors in the safe houses or finding an entrance in a cave and one would reach an actual railroad, with real locomotives and boxcars and conductors, sometimes complete with benches on the platform.

“Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel,” Whitehead writes of his imagined Underground Railroad, “pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north, presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting towards a miraculous terminus.”

Cora’s journey can be thought of as a never-ending trip through hell. She becomes the obsession of the slave catcher Ridegeway – a cruel figure whose assistant is recognized by his necklace of human ears.

It is an exceptional that needs discussion. Cora’s journey has her experiencing various incarnations of evil resulting from the poisonous operations of slavery.

Does Cora make it to freedom? Come and find out November 18, 1:30 -2:45 p.m. at the Pico Branch Library. We will discuss The Underground Railroad at the Annex of Pico Branch Library: a welcoming place for debates and revelations.

I hope to see you there.

Nancy Snyder facilitates the American Stories book group