The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This is an interesting and imaginative novel from 2016. It draws the reader in by portraying the horrifying world of its heroine, Cora, who begins as a teenager enduring the violence of slave life on a Georgia cotton plantation run by the cruel Randall family. She then evolves into a mature young woman after escaping from the plantation—inspired by the escape of her mother a decade earlier—after which she endures a variety of contrasting adventures that form the remainder of the novel.

Cora escapes from Georgia via the title’s underground railroad, which turns a metaphor into reality. For the railroad of this novel literally burrows underground through the Southern states in order to carry slaves north to freedom. It is a marvelous example of what an imaginative author can do. In this case, a verbal metaphor becomes a vividly described actual railroad. Its various stations have steel rails, tile walls, often-decrepit furnishings, an irregular schedule, and a variety of station masters, both black and white. Indeed, Cora’s final journey on this underground railroad closes out the novel in a beautifully crafted ending.

But once Cora has escaped the cruel Georgia plantation, with Caesar, a plantation colleague, the remaining portion of the novel becomes less dramatic. Cora’s first landing spot is a town in South Caroline that seems to be exploring how to integrate Negroes into their society. It is in stark contrast to her experience on the Georgia plantation, and she and Caesar, are tempted to stay there. But then she learns that the town is using their Negroes for a medical experiment, and on top of that a slave catcher named Ridgeway is in town, the same Ridgeway who had sought Ruby’s mother, and failed, after that woman’s earlier escape. So Cora has no choice but to flee what had seemed to be an hospitable town.

The next railroad stop brings Cora to the home of a station master, Martin, in North Carolina, where he hides Cora in his attic. For the slave catcher Ridgeway is still after her. Meanwhile, from this attic she can see the anti-Negro attitude of the town being dramatized below her on Fridays in public performances. And in doing so, Whitehead captures the anger and violence that marks the white society. This is in contrast to the South Carolina town she has just left, as well as later in Indiana, in which the slaves create their own self-governing community on a farm, and are accepted as human beings.

However, the contrasting attitudes found at these and future sites begin to seem arbitrary. They concentrate more on the different treatment of the Negroes than on what is happening inside Cora herself. Once Cora is betrayed in North Carolina, for example, and Ridgeway tracks her down, her subsequent adventures become far less dramatic. It is as if the author wishes to cover certain ground, certain life experiences of the slaves, and takes his eye off Cora herself. Indeed, he admits he did extensive research into the lives of the slaves of the 19th century, and it as if he felt the need to include much of that information in this work. Which results in the reader being less involved over the second half of the novel in the life and fate of Cora herself.

Whitehead also reveals a lack of structural discipline as he inserts short chapters or scenes in his account that have nothing to do with Cora, but merely provide a fuller history for certain other characters. In two occasions, he offers such short sections to tidy up loose ends regarding the fate of Cora’s mother Mabel, and that of Caesar, Cora’s companion in escape.

As suggested, there is a sameness to Cora’s adventures in the various locales she flees to. For while each locale reflects a different attitude, positive or negative, toward Negroes, as well as the different types of cruelty toward them, it is those difference that are the point of each of those locations, not how those differences change Cora’s attitude or her own future decision-making. Which, one suspects, is what appealed to the Pulitzer judges who honored this novel with their prize. That is, the message of the novel, the exposure of slave life in horrific detail, is what impressed them, rather than the story of Cora herself and any psychological impact these adventures might have had on her. Plus, these judges were also surely impressed with the imaginative travel the author uses, as well as the potential contributions that Negroes might bring to the country if truly integrated into American society.

In other words, for much of this book, after Cora escapes with Caesar, she is a victim of circumstance. She makes no real decisions herself, as she is moved from one location to another. She simply reacts to what is happening around her. She is, as I implied, more a symbol than a real person, more a typical black slave than an interesting individual. We do not get inside her to feel her hopes and fears, her sorrows or her happiness, or what various frustrations and successes do to change her.

I also do wish that Whitehead had made greater use of his concept of an actual underground railroad. For he does nothing with it in terms of his story. It moves Cora about, yes. But it has no influence on her actions or her fate. It merely enables her to move from Georgia to South Carolina to North Caroline, to Tennessee to Indiana, where she encounters different attitudes toward slavery in each location. What I wanted was for the railroad to affect her safety, such as having her take the wrong route, or for it to have brought her to people different from what she expected, good or bad, after she has perhaps misreads its schedule. That is, I would have much preferred to have the railroad directly influence her adventures or even determine her fate.

This appears to be more of a traditional novel than are other works of Whitehead. And the traditional usually appeals to me. But I sense that the author became too involved here in his message, and too committed to the considerable research he conducted about the life of 19th century Negroes, both the enslaved and the free. So after the first half of this novel, I stopped being caught up in the fate of Cora. I read more to discover what fate the author was going to devise for her. Which turned out to be unsatisfying, but nevertheless beautifully written. (April, 2019)

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Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

This 2010 work is a magnificent novel, the best war novel I have read in decades. It is equal to the best of Mailer and Jones. It is the novel of Vietnam. It reportedly took the author 30 years to write this novel—far longer, that is, than it took Hemingway to write his about World War I. This was undoubtedly because of the scope of this novel; and the result, for me, surpasses even A Farewell to Arms, since that novel was more concerned with the experience of one soldier. In fact, this novel surpasses, for me, even Mailer and Jones, because of its emphasis on man’s humanity,

Matterhorn tells here the experience of a Marine company, Bravo Company, and a second lieutenant and platoon leader Waino Mellas. Indeed, it comprises in the adventures of this one company a capsule of the entire Vietnamese war. Even while author Marlantes reduced his manuscript from 1,600 pages to about 600, he narrowed in on representative exploits. And so, we first meet Bravo Company out on patrol, not knowing where the enemy is or when and how it might attack. We immediately grasp the uncertainty, the fear, the silence, the darkness, and the moral and physical discomfort of fighting in a strange land.

This is also the story of many men in Bravo Company. Of First Lieutenant Fitch, in charge of the company; of Second Lieutenant Ted Hawke, all of 22, second in command; of second lieutenants Mellas, Goodwin and Kendall, in charge of its three platoons; of its squad leaders, corporals Connolly, Fisher, Jacobs, Jancowitz, and Jackson; of Corporal Mallory who has mysterious headaches that no one can diagnose; of Sergeant Cassidy, the artillery gunner, who antagonizes the blacks; of Private Vancouver who always wants to be on point, the most dangerous assignment; of Private Arran and his scout dog Pat; of privates China and Henry, black Marines who duel to become the leader of mutinous blacks; and finally of the devious and ambitious battalion officers, Lt. Colonel Simpson and Major Blakely, whose mission is to kill NVAs, North Vietnamese Army regulars, rather than to occupy Vietnamese territory.

Bringing strategic perspective to the extensive field action are Simpson and Blakely, back at headquarters, who push Bravo in order to earn promotions for themselves, and who realize the way to do so is to probe for and kill those enemy troops. But then comes an irrational decision from Saigon that is symptomatic of the military bungling to come. After Bravo has established defensive positions atop Matterhorn Mountain, it is ordered to abandon them, because headquarters generals want to impress visiting politicians by shifting troops to a distant attack at Cam Lo.

Bravo’s new mission is to trek through the jungle in the novel’s first dramatic sequence. It is a powerful one, as men we have met begin to die, sometimes horribly, such as from a malarial disease or a mauling by a tiger at night. The new orders prompt Bravo to probe bamboo forests and elephant grass, then plow through river canyons and climb high cliffs, all the time being told to exaggerate body counts as its soldiers search for an NVA ammunition dump whose position is a vague point on a map. And, after they succeed, their gung-ho commanders send these exhausted men on another forced march, this time to establish an artillery outpost on a distant hill.

Thus, Bravo confronts a two-week hike, the first half on short rations and the second half with both no food and no sleep, all the while headquarters demanding that they move faster. And their horror is compounded by carrying the decaying body killed by that tiger, plus black soldiers planning to revolt against the discrimination they feel.

This is where this novel begins to dig deeper than mere warfare. Because we grow to understand the field officers’ loyalty to the men of their company, and the enlisted men’s loyalty to each other and to their mission. We realize that this novel is about more than war, about more than the trauma of Vietnam. It is about the impact on these human beings of fighting in a strange world in which the enemy lurks behind every leaf, or is hidden in the night. It is about the politics of getting along with one’s superiors, which Fitch and Mellas learn to do but not Hawke—and which the black Marines also fail to do. And, for all of them, it is about the dream of home.

The humanizing of Mellas continues as he volunteers for a dangerous patrol before leaving the artillery outpost. He wounds an NVA, only to feel guilt because he cannot kill the enemy soldier, instead leaving him to suffer. Complexity increases when they return to headquarters, and the black soldiers force the transfer of a belligerent Cassidy for his own safety, then nearly riot in a movie theatre. Also, Mallory, the black private, is back with his headaches; and he attacks, in frustration, a doctor who cannot cure him.

Mellas’ reaction to headquarters life includes getting drunk with his fellow officers, all trying to forget that new orders will again send them into the bush. And when it comes, they are ordered to helicopter out to save a reconnaissance team outnumbered by the NVA. The initial mission succeeds, but Simpson and Blakely need more NVA dead, and so order Bravo to attack Helicopter Hill and Matterhorn. And the irony, of course, is that the US had earlier abandoned these hills after building strong defenses there.

Despite a lack of surprise, of superior numbers, of artillery support, the lieutenant colonel orders the attack, thinking that if Bravo gets into trouble, it will be re-enforced and the NVA body count will rise. The result is the major and climactic two-part battle of the novel, a battle in which many of the Marines are killed, Marines whom both Mellas and we the readers have come to know. It is a painful reading experience, but perhaps not truly moving because it is described so precisely, so clinically.

In the first phase, Mellas betrays mixed motivations, as he first charges out of a safe position to join Bravo in its attack on Helicopter Hill, and then bargains for a bronze star recommendation if he can save Pollini, a wounded private. But in trying to save him, he fires his rifle over Pollini’s head and later thinks he might have killed this man by accident. The sense of guilt hangs over him a long while after the hill is taken.

But with 13 US troops dead and 40 wounded, and only 10 NVA killed, the colonel needs more NVA bodies. So he orders an attack on Matterhorn itself, not knowing how many enemy troops are there, and knowing fog prevents US supplies coming in or the wounded being evacuated. After the attack fails, supplies do arrive and some are evacuated, but the fog returns, and only 97 men are left to continue the fight.

That night, the Marines are surrounded, and Mellas thinks he is going to die. This prompts him to think of God and death and fate, and the irony of fate. “He was the butt of a cruel joke. God had given him life and must have laughed as Mellas used it to kill Pollini, to get a piece of ribbon to show proof of his worth. And it was his worth that was the joke.” Later: “He cursed God directly for the savage joke that had been played on him. And in that cursing Mellas for the first time really talked with his God.”

Overall, the NVA is moving three regiments up three valleys from Laos into South Vietnam. A weakened Bravo Company, low on water and ammunition, is the only US force in its way. Fog continues to prevent supplies and re-enforcements, and relief companies are a two-day hike away. A discussion of racism at this point seems meant to mirror race relations back home, to underline the sacrifices of blacks in Vietnam, to remind the reader of the enemy being of another race, and finally to stress the humanity of everyone that is fighting in Vietnam. These intervals give texture to the Vietnam war but also humanity to the novel’s characters. Even Simpson and Blakely, in fact, are given their moments of self-knowledge, of humanity.

At this point, the puppet strings of author Marlantes are faintly visible. For Hawke, Bravo’s former executive officer now back at headquarters, organizes supplies, pleads for pilots, and joins a helicopter relief of his old company, bringing in 40 men and new ammo. Yet his effort is presented so naturally, and he is so sincere, that it works.

Bravo is ordered to attack Matterhorn with these re-enforcements in order to, in the colonel’s eyes, restore company pride. But things still go wrong. The fog clears, but US planes miss their target. Nevertheless, Mellas stands, shaking, and walks up hill toward enemy lines. Others follow, surprising him with their respect of his leadership. But as he is pinned down and then wounded twice, Mellas decides that the NVA are never going to quit fighting, and he sees no sense in their attacking and killing each other. It is the novel’s one direct anti-Vietnam statement.

As Mellas, blind in one eye, awaits medical evacuation, he decides that by killing the enemy, who have people back home who care for them, he has participated in evil, and that without such caring there would be no evil. “The jungle wasn’t evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man has added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares.” It is such thoughts that add richness to this novel, that stretch it beyond the level of other works of warfare.

Mellas is evacuated to a hospital ship, where he encounters regimental discipline but also a sympathetic nurse, a nurse who recognizes the humanity in him. For me, this connection between two human beings, my soft spot, results in the most moving chapter in this novel.

Back in headquarters, Lieutenant Fitch, the company commander, is transferred, and Lieutenant Hawke is given a bronze star and made company commander. But then a dummy grenade is tossed by black Marines, and Bravo troops are ordered to give up all their arms. The dramatic repercussions of this act create the novel’s final impact, but Mellas keeps silent about the perpetrators because of his loyalty to the company as a whole, and his desire to keep it as an effective unit.

The violent deaths that follow help to round off this novel, but they seem originated by the author as much as by the rebellious black troops who have been a presence throughout the novel. Marlantes then lends substance to his novel by concluding with a three-page chapter in which Mellas muses: “He knew there could be no meaning to someone who was dead. Meaning came out of living, Meaning could come only from his choices and actions. Meaning was made, not discovered. He saw that he alone could make [a friend’s] death meaningful by choosing what [that friend] had chosen, the company. Things he’d want before—power, prestige—now seemed empty, and their pursuit endless….he would not look for answers in the past or future. Painful events would always be painful. The dead are dead, forever.”

This is one message of this novel, a message that takes it beyond a novel about war. But there are two other messages in the final chapter. When the soldiers chant that if each one’s death is good enough for that person, it is also good enough for them, they are cohering as one unit. (And the races as well?) Meanwhile, Mellas recognizes that both he and they have been like shadows passing across a landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things but leaving nothing itself changed.

Karl Marlantes is a highly decorated veteran of the war in Vietnam. One senses that his experience in Vietnam filled the rest of his life, as he put all of himself into this work. His thoughts about life and death, about God and fate, about caring and meaning certainly suggest this. As a result, this would appear to be the only novel that he will ever write, which probably satisfied him at the moment of its publication. On the other hand, there might well be an editor who one day will persuade him—or his heirs—that another novel (or novelette) might be found in those 1,000 manuscript pages that were deleted from this work. If such a work is found that will stand on its own, I will not begrudge its publication. I think may be quite good. (February, 2015)

Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

This 1995 work is a long and complex novel. Its narrative flows rapidly, but it also jumps over long passages of time, which produces about five separate stories. The consistent character is Elphaba, the Wicked With of the West, and the novel is about how this sympathetic, victimized character evolves, and how and why she becomes wicked.

The entire work was inspired by The Wizard of Oz, but is a rather free adaptation of the events that led up to the L. Frank Baum novel. Also, it’s for adults, not kids. Maguire interprets the events for his own purposes, one of which is to explore the existence of evil and the possible consequences in an afterlife. But in doing so, through the five stories, he creates a confusing narrative, as the surrounding characters change in each story and Elphaba herself changes.

Also confusing for a long while is the presence of Animals and animals. The former have human characteristics, but are not recognized as human by much of society, which nevertheless uses them. The lowercase animals are mere animals. Upper case Animals are close to the slaves of our past, but Maguire does not stress this.

The land of Oz consists of five separate governments, none of which trusts the other; and the Wizard as the villain apparently wishes to dominate Oz overall. (Note that his role is quite small; and he is no jovial, unthreatening Frank Morgan.) Thus, there is a strong political element to this novel, an element which for me offers an unwanted distraction from the adventures of the main characters. Although I do grant that some of the characters are deeply involved in this struggle for power.

In the first story, Elphaba is born to an evangelical-type minister, but has green skin, a temper, and a deathly fear of water. When a sister, Nessarose, is born, she is quite beautiful, but has no arms. She is her father’s favorite and Elphaba becomes jealous of her.

In the second story, Elphaba go off to Shiz University where she rooms with snobby and beautiful Galinda, watches over Nessarose, and meets other friends. There is a murder over the status of Animals, and Elphaba decides she must rebel and join their cause.

The third story, five years later, has Elphaba deeply involved in the underground. She has a futile affair, and, after failing to assassinate a target, she flees, mute, to a nunnery.

In the fourth story, seven more years have passed. Elphaba is called by her father to Munchkinland to help set “queen” Nessarose on the right path. Nessa promises to give Elphaba her magic ruby slippers when she dies. Elphaba wants these slippers because she has learned how to do magic. She is on her way to becoming a witch.

The final story, another seven years later, begins when Dorothy’s house from The Wizard of Oz falls on Nessa and kills her. Elphaba expects to get the shoes now, but Galinda, now Glinda, arrives first and gives them to Dorothy for the girl’s safety. Elphaba is furious; the slippers are rightfully hers. This turns Elphaba into the Wicked Witch of the West, as she plans to kill Dorothy to get the slippers.

Thus, Elphaba has become wicked, even though she has done much good in life, i.e., supporting the Animals and rebelling against the dictatorial Wizard. This contradiction is what enables Maguire to raise the question of evil. Are evil acts ever justified? Can/should a good person commit evil acts, and remain good?

At the end, Elphaba is evil. But how much has this grown out of her unfortunate circumstances: her green skin, her temper, her paternity, etc., and how much has been introduced by the author—both to conform in part to Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and to enable him to explore the complexity of existence, such as whether there is a God (the Unknown God) and an afterlife. This is what might prompt one to reread this work. Knowing the conclusion, even though Maguire does not resolve those eternal issues, would one appreciate the issues better?  Would one also detect more clearly the author’s Catholic background?

I have not seen the musical, Wicked, but my impression is that Glinda has a more prominent role there than she does in the novel. Is it because the musical presents only part of the novel, the early portion when Glinda is more prominent? More likely it is a reworking, based on the realization that someone has to be in dramatic conflict with Elphaba.

To sum up, this is a story of fantasy, evil, and politics. Its content is the fantasy, its core is the evil, and its theme is the political struggle in Oz. Wally Lamb sums up this work quite well: “Maguire’s adult fable examines some of literature’s major themes: the nature of evil, the bittersweet dividends of power, and the high costs of love. Elphaba…is as scary as ever, but this time in a different way. She’s undeniably human. She’s us.”

Maguire achieves here what many authors strive for: a sympathetic villain. He creates sympathy with the good that Elphaba does in her family life and her political life. Then he confronts her with emotion and circumstance that twists her frame of reference. It is a twist I am still reluctant to accept at face value, even as I understand how it works in the novel. So A for effort; B+ for achievement. There is a certain confusion when the separate adventures, as entertaining as they are, do not flow from one story to the next. (July, 2013)