The Underground Railroad—Reimagining America’s Ugly Past

Betsy Childs Howard | March 22, 2017

Why do we read fiction? Most often it’s for pleasure or escape. It does us good to get caught up in someone else’s story. But fiction also has the power to shape our moral imaginations. It increases empathy and allows us to experience emotionally the outworking of choices we haven’t made or tragedies we haven’t suffered.

Some novels lean so heavily toward the purpose of molding reader sympathies that they forsake any pretense of giving pleasure. The Underground Railroad: A Novel by Colson Whitehead was this sort of book. I steeled myself for it the way I do before reading about the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church or the Rwandan genocide. Sometimes we must look with open eyes at the evil humans can perpetrate themselves or countenance in others.

Picture of Darkness

The Underground Railroad isn’t historical fiction. Although set in the 1800s in pre-Civil War America, it’s an alternative America. In this America, the Underground Railroad isn’t a secret network of people smuggling runaway slaves to safety, but a literal subterranean railway complete with stationmasters and steam engines.

In this America, each slave state has different laws and different attitudes toward slavery. In Georgia, slaves are mostly treated like animals, except…

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