The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead ✎✎✎✎

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Like a runaway train, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad swept through 2016 on its way to winning the National Book Award for Fiction. You had to read it so that you knew the construct, the fantastical reimagining of a historical event, the simply gut-wrenching language; so that you could keep up with the conversation.

In Whitehead’s imagination the underground railroad, said to have saved over 30,000 people from slave-holding states, is an actual railroad. Engines, conductors, station agents, tunnels carved from the earth by those who would use them to escape.

The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.

. . .Who are you after you finish something this magnificent—in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

The reader travels the rails and stops with Cora, a young woman imprisoned in slavery on a

Georgia plantation, an orphan, the victim of a brutal rape. When a fellow slave offers Cora the chance to run, at first she declines, then she hesitates and then, she decides to go. The two make it to what initially seems a haven — another imagining of Whitehead where the town population imports “pilgrims” from slavery for nefarious purposes — from which they must run again to another and another. Yet Cora takes refuge in her mind, seeking out knowledge, learning, literature.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

In Juan Gabriel Vasquez’ review for the New York Times, he says: “In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/books/review/colson-whitehead-underground-railroad.html?_r=0

whitehead-bookThe Underground Railroad is the first work I’ve read by Colson Whitehead, but according to Salon.com,  he is “[a] recipient of the MacArthur (the so-called genius grant) and Guggenheim fellowships, Whitehead is the author of six previous novels, including “John Henry Days,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prizeand The New York Times bestseller “Zone One,” a zombie tale set in New York.” Sounds like there is more good stuff out there waiting for me to get to. The Salon article includes an interview with Whitehead about the inspiration for The Underground Railroad. “The idea of ‘what if the underground railroad was actually real,’ is, in many ways, something we picture in elementary school. Yes, it’s fanciful and childish. But it also had many possibilities and that got me thinking about all of this in an active way.” http://www.salon.com/2016/08/27/why-colson-whitehead-made-the-underground-railroad-real-its-fanciful-and-childish-but-it-also-had-many-possibilities/

The Underground Railroad is a beautiful but frequently-tough read, particularly for those who may be more willing to pretend (as I once heard a neighbor say) “all that ugly stuff is over.” In this particular time, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad may be just the warning bell we need to stay attuned.

MENU

When Cora reaches Valentine’s place in Indiana, there is a feast day which includes “hogs . . . chopped on the long pine table and covered dipney sauce. Smoky collards, turnips, sweet potato pie.”

I love watching Top Chef, the current season of which is being filmed in Charleston, S.C. On a recent episode, they mentioned Edna Lewis, (April 13, 1916 – February 13, 2006), an African-American chef and author best known for her books on traditional Southern Cuisine. I’ve got two of her publications on order (back-ordered probably due to others having seen the same show) but I did find her recipe for Spicy Collard Greens on FoodandWine.com http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/spicy-collard-greens.

From my research, “dipney” is a sauce that was mopped on the meat while cooking. Here’s a recipe from a very fun website called the Obsessive Compulsive Barbecue: http://ocbarbecue.blogspot.com/2013/06/antebellum-barbecue-mop-recipe.html.

And from my grandmother’s cookbook, a recipe for Southern Sweet Potato Pie.

Wash 3 sweet potatoes and bake for 30 minutes until soft. (Don’t microwave incidentally, you can’t get the same texture.) Peel and mash. You need 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes.

Preheat oven to 425.

Cream 1 cup butter, 1 1/2 cups sugar together and then mix with the mashed potatoes. Add 4 eggs, one at a time, until blended. Mis in 1/2 cup bourbon, the grated rind and juice of 1/2 orange and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Pour the filling into the pie crust (my grandmother always used Pet-Ritz) and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 and bake for another 45 minutes until the filling is set (it doesn’t wiggle) and the crust is brown.

Sift with confectioners sugar when cool or serve with a bourbon-whipped cream.

MUSIC

Spirituals would be ideal. I’ve mentioned the American Spiritual Ensemble before, led by the University of Kentucky’s own Dr. Everett McCorvey, and their music certainly would hold up to a discussion of The Underground Railroad.

Read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Remember its lessons as well as its beauty and power and tragedy. colsonwhitehead-erinpatriceo-brien_sq-7c50afdaaa81e8021d312015cea780f25ff42465-s300-c85.jpg

 

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Adventures With Huckleberries

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“Yes, I’m Your Man.”  According to the authoritative  “Urban Dictionary, the phrase “I’m Your Huckleberry” was common slang in the 1880s for “Yes, I’m the man you’re looking for.”  So when Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday coyly answers Johnny Ringo’s challenge of who wants a fight, he’s saying he’s ready.

In Tombstone, that western pinnacle of guilty pleasure, I find my admiration of the Earp Brothers well-mixed with my (a-hem) appreciation of that fevered brow, natty handlebar mustache, and straight-shooting gun wielded by Doc Holiday.  Val Kilmer, the embodiment of the handsome, naughty, well-educated Doc is indeed ready for the job.  Filmed in 1993, Tombstone relays the story of the 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral.  And truthfully, has nothing to do with this literary post other than the movie’s use of the word “huckleberry” gave me a chance to revel momentarily in my crush on Val Kilmer’s Doc.

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And really:  can you blame me?

So now, back to the real post:  The Adventures of Huckleberry, published in 1884, sweeps readers into another archetypal American story as Huckleberry Finn floats down the river with escaped slave Jim.    Mark Twain, the famous pseudonym for Samuel Clemons, begins the first-person narrative with this warning:

NOTICE

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narra- tive will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

I promise not to try to find a motive or a moral or a plot.  But I will say that many reviewers note that Huckleberry Finn is the foundation of modern American literature.  I will also say that the book seems as significant to those who want it banned as to those who want it to be part of every high school curriculum.  The language is tough and seems so unnecessary and downright evil to our modern sensibilities.  But Twain wrote this narrative in 1884 and was depicting the Antebellum South of approximately 1834-1844 according to Twain.  The language for the time and place was, sadly, accurate.

Interestingly, we chose this book for our book club this month and I was the only one who finished.  The six others said the language required too much concentration; they had to read the book in small doses in order to understand the dialects and dialogue.  I certainly see the point, but once you dive into the language and allow it to flow over you like the river Huck and Jim navigate, to me it becomes easy and entertaining.

And Huck’s descriptions of the natural world are gorgeous.

…It was a monstrous big river down there — sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid day-times; soon as night was most gone, we stopped navigating and tied up — nearly always in the dead water under a tow-head; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them.  Then we set out our lines.  Next we slid into the river and had a swim so as to freshen up and cool oof; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come.  Not a sound, anywheres–perfectly still–just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull frogs a-cluttering, maybe.

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With respect to Mr. Twain’s wishes, Huck’s journey down the Mississippi river coincides with his growth from boy to man; and represents American’s own maturation from a gawky fledgling yearning to test and try itself through the Civil War.

Ernest Hemingway said:

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ If you read it you must stop where … Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

MENU & RECIPES

For book club, I served the following menu:

Watermelon daiquiris — 1/2 watermelon in chunks, 1/2 cup of spiced rum; 1/2 cup of triple sec, 1/2 cup of fresh lime juice.  Add ice and blend.  Makes 6-8.

Watermelon balls

Fried okra

Cornbread — 2 tablespoons grease or lard (EGADS!  I used olive oil), 1 1/2 cups self-rising corn meal, 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Grease an iron skillet.  Preheat oven AND cast iron skillet to 450.  As oven heats, mix cornmeal, butter milk and salt.  When pan and oven are hot, slide the cornmeal mix into the skillet.  Bake for twenty minutes or until top and sides are browned.  Serve with butter.

Cornbread Battered Fried Catfish

Hop’n’John — Out of deference to some vegetarian eaters, I did not use bacon or ham and had to work to add flavor to the quinoa/black rice/black-eyed pea mixture.  I did it by sautéing half an onion in olive oil and adding red pepper flakes to heat and then stirring all of that into the grain-bean mixture.  Quinoa was a nice addition to the usual rice.

For dessert, I found some Huckleberry Jam and served that over brownies topped with ice cream.

MUSIC

The American Spiritual Ensemble, led by Dr. Everett McCorvey of the University of Kentucky School of Music, performs worldwide to great acclaim.  A c.d. of their recreations of spirituals would provide context and beauty for your discussion.  http://www.americanspiritualensemble.com/store.html

Well, as Huck would say, “there ain’t nothing more to write about,” so I’ll quit and wish you a grand adventure of your own with Huckleberry Finn.

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