Last Monday, Colson Whitehead’s sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. By chance I had finished off this book just about a week before and while I enjoyed it, I’m still not sure I would be the first to put it into the same camp of great past Pulitzer winners such as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, or more recently The Road. I will admit that I have not read the other nominees, nor are they near the top of my reading list so maybe it is unfair to judge it so harshly, but I just didn’t find it to be the best book I’ve read this year.
It’s a good story and it engages you easily. Cora is a third generation slave in America whose grandmother Ajarri was born free in Africa and brought to America, and whose mother escaped the life of slavery without leaving anything of any value to Cora. Cora is fairly content (or as content as one can be in the situation) with her life on the Randall farm, her part being administered by the less callous brother slave owner but new arrival Caesar lights something within her. After a horrific whipping is administered to Caesar, Cora steps in and takes a beating herself and her attitude and desires spring anew and the question of escaping and breaking out start to tempt her.
The Underground Railroad that is spoken of is not the same one that is found in history textbooks; it is what it says it is, a litany of underground train tracks that can be diverted and displaced at the will of the abolitionists, so long as they are not found by the racists and slave-hunters that track the land. Cora takes the train around America and visits different parts of America. While they seem different at first, the same horrors tend to manifest themselves, albeit in different ways.
The story reads like a modern-day allegory of the persistent parallels between modern and historical America. The familiarity of parts of the story to the wonderful yet painful Roots, or even the Autobiography of Malcolm X, shows just how little distance America has travelled since the terrible days of slavery and the dangers that regressing back into those ways of thought present are utterly terrifying.
It is perhaps the true reason that such high praise has been heaped upon The Underground Railroad that it feels utterly relevant to the modern social climate despite covering a topic 150 years divorced. The fact that Barack Obama included it in his list of summer reading last year alongside H is for Hawk undoubtedly added to the political impact the novel has, but it does remain as a brilliant and stark reminder of the horrors humans have committed upon each other.
It was exceptionally difficult to match this one with an appropriate dram. I enjoyed a few different ones when reading and nothing ever seemed quite right. It was only after its conclusion, which felt a sweet and apt ending that I came to the conclusion of pairing it with Aberlour 16, a tremendous dram which starts its life in American Oak and matures latterly in Sherry Casks. On the nose it is sweet and nutty, and the palate overwhelms with creamy, sweet floral and spice notes and stunning mild oak finish. It is one of the finest drams I have had recently and is available at an exceptionally reasonable price considering the age and expertise that has gone into it.
It’s well worth pairing these two, especially if you are looking for a nice, contemplative, well-paced read and drink to satisfy the soul on a long summer night.