The underground railroad : a novel

by Colson Whitehead

Laserdisc, 2016





New York : Doubleday, [2016]


Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. Their first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels.

Media reviews

Der Roman des afroamerikanischen Autors Colson Whitehead über die Sklaverei in den USA des 19. Jahrhunderts kommt in deutscher Übersetzung nun gerade recht, um auf den heutigen Rassismus zu verweisen.

User reviews

LibraryThing member publiusdb
My feelings on The Underground Railroad are so mixed that I've changed my rating several times, first from a mere three, then up to a four, and back to just three stars. With much to think about and, yet, much that felt lacking, I think I've settled on a rating that perhaps underrates Colson Whitehead's alternate history.

Oh, yes. If you weren't aware, The Underground Railroad is an alternate history with something of a taste of magical realism, to boot.

Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation undergoing the transition from a benevolent master to his two less stable sons. After a visit to a slave gathering leaves Cora beaten by one of the sons, Cora jumps at an opportunity to escape the plantation and joins Caesar, a slave from Virginia more recently purchased by her master, as he escapes the plantation and with the help of a local white man escapes on the Underground Railroad.

Which just happens to be a real railroad. Underground.

It's around this point that I did a double take and realized that something was off. I'm no scholar of the slave-owning south, or even of the American Civil War (though I've enjoyed a few good books about the period, including Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels and the excellent Civil War anthology With My Face to the Enemy edited by Robert Cowley), but I am pretty sure that the Underground Railroad was more of a symbolic name for the network of safe houses and secret routes to the north to help escaping slaves than a real railroad, let alone an underground railroad. Colson's conceit is an America just a bit off from our own, with a railroad that is real, is underground, and where each stop is a new state with new parameters.

As Cora moves north, each trip on the Underground Railroad takes her to a new state, and each state has its own version of what might have happened if history had taken a slightly--or significantly--different turn. I won't give spoilers, but each stop on Cora's journey seems calculated to flesh out another piece of the American story of slaves and the journey they faced, not just in antebellum America, but in the post-war world. Colson integrates some of the particularly pernicious repressions that only arose after slavery ended (including lynchings and disease testing on blacks) in a way that makes it as sinister as it was, reminding us that America's history with race is anything but blameless.

Indeed, here's where I lean towards wanting to rate The Underground Railroad higher: we read the book as part of a book club and while we spent very little time discussing the actual book we did spend significant time discussing the issues of race in modern America. (The irony of a group of white men discussing race from the comfort of quiet and relatively homogenous Utah does not escape me. At one point, someone asked me a direct question about how I thought we could improve how we deal with race in our country and I was forced to admit that I had no idea. All I could offer is that we could probably start off with individual attitudes of humility and acceptance of others' differences, but otherwise--who am I to tell others how to solve their problems?) Brittany, my wife, read The Underground Railroad at the same time I did, and we found lots of opportunity to discuss the issues it raised, as well. (The book she next read was Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which she insists I should read, as well, so I guess we're on a streak?) Any book that provokes discussion and reevaluation of perspectives is, in my humble opinion, worthy of some repute.

But why only three stars and not four? I think the way the book fell short was in Whitehead's development of characters, especially Cora. Despite lots of opportunity for building sympathy and depth, Whitehead leaves her just out of reach, almost disconnected from the sometimes more sympathetic characters around her, a woman who often seems unwilling to allow herself to feel, and thereby gain a color that might endear her to the reader.

Would I recommend The Underground Railroad? Probably, though not without reservation. It is not for everyone, but probably the right kind of literary fiction that will meet the guidelines of the bookclub-type reader.
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LibraryThing member Dorritt
Obviously no realistic tale of slavery is ever going to be an easy read. However, the argument could be made that this story of young female slave named Cora is especially affecting, given that she begins the tale orphaned, vulnerable, and alone, shunned even by the other slaves on Randall plantation for daring to defy the “alpha males.” Under the circumstances, the suspense doesn’t derive from wondering whether or not she’ll run, but whether or not she’ll survive. Thus begins this novel of pursuit from the relentless forces of physical and psychological persecution.

Much has been made of Whitehead’s decision to literally interpret the Underground Railroad as an railroad running underground, which transportation system facilitates Cora’s escapes throughout the novel. Setting aside my qualms as a scientist (there’s simply no way they could vent a system of caves that expansive), I get that the image of Cora travelling through dark, dangerous tunnels works as an effective metaphor. However, it also works as a narrative ploy for avoiding long, repetitive chapters of flight across perilous countryside, which is - coincidentally or deliberately - convenient.

After a relatively short (but realistically fraught) journey, Cora is able to reach the city in South Carolina, where social schemes to accommodate a biracial population seem to offer a paradise. You don’t have to squint, however, to spot the clues that this “paradise” is merely a veneer: blacks are still economically exploited (“company stores” ensure that workers are permanently indentured by debt) and viscerally objectified (justifying the local hospital’s policy of covert sterilization).

Compared to her life on the plantation, this might still seem like an acceptable compromise – which may explain (to my mind) the greatest weakness of the book: the character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter. Much has been made of the psychological authenticity of the characters portrayed herein – how the horrific events in Cora’s life undermine her ability to trust, how a cruel version of “Stockholm Sydrome” seduced blacks into actually working in tandem with white slave catchers. Ridgeway, in contrast, is a spittin’, swearin’ spaghetti western bad guy whose obsession with catching and killing Cora may help move the plot along (it’s Ridgeway’s conveniently inconvenient appearance that eventually dislodges Cora from South Carolina) but who sticks out among the palatte of other nuanced characters like Nancy Drew dropped into the middle of Macbeth to solve the king’s murder. (Yes, Whitehead gives us the irony of Ridgeway’s father believing in a “Great Spirit” that unites all living things, but this only makes Ridgeway’s one-dimensionality even more jarring.)

Alas, Cora’s next disembarkation in North Carolina strips away even the pretense of veneer, landing her in a horrific town where the slaughter of blacks is the stuff of Sunday picnic entertainment … literally. The state has passed a law banning blacks; anyone caught in the state is hung off of trees along miles of road dubbed “The Freedom Trail.” A la Anne Frank, Cora huddles in an attic for months before being discovered by the relentless Ridgeway, who then proceeds to lose her again, allowing her to escape to her third destination, Valentine Farm, a free black commune in Indiana.

Safe at last? Of course not, but first there’s time to relax a little and explore the complex perspective on slavery put forth by the preeminent black abolitionists of the day. Should blacks try to “earn their place” in society by embracing the rule of law, or do they collectively have a duty to help each other to freedom? While readers are still pondering this impossible ethical quandary, white neighbors raid the compound, killing almost everyone except Cora, who lives long enough to square off with Ridgeway one last time. Wearily she endures, this time conducting herself towards the hope of freedom, having learned that while the universe may be cruel and perverse, “hope” is the one thing that remains firmly in our grasp.

This has been compared to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and this is an important insight. For all the novel's emotional authenticity, large parts of this are deliberately hyperbolic, with a thick, creamy topping of irony. North Carolina never banished black people, and I'm pretty sure the South Carolina social experiment is an invention as well. A road of hanged men dubbed “The Freedom Trail”? A slave named Homer who jots down the phrases in a notebook as he journeys? Yellow fever and cholera physically blighting a landscape already psychologically decimated by racial hatred? Setting Cora up a “living exhibit” in a museum’s display on slavery? At one point, someone says “This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.” This is brutal and impactful, as are the exampled noted above … but also an artful rhetorical trick, a fallacy of composition, arguing that something true of a part must be true of the whole. Whitehead’s implied thesis – that since slavery is evil, the U.S. must be evil – is affecting but, like all good Swiftian prose, perhaps more accurately interpreted as exaggeration for effect.

As an important work of fiction, I’ll willingly give this five out of five stars. I’m a firm subscriber to the “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” school of pessimism, and this definitely works as a devastating reminder of the barbarism of slavery. As a work of literature, perhaps four out of five stars – the writing is competent but nothing flashy. As a work of entertainment – where does one even begin? It’s like asking someone if they enjoyed Hurricane Katrina: you’re mesmerized by the horror of it, captured by the human tragedy of it, but does that qualify as entertainment? I think, in this case, I may have to justify the time I spent reading it utilizing a different set of metrics.
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LibraryThing member Wickabod
"To see chains on another person and be glad they are not your own -- such was the good fortune permitted colored people, defined by how much worse it could be any moment."

I had read three of Colson Whitehead's previous books without much success: on upper-middle-class black life (uneven); on zombies (tedious); on poker (baffling). His writing often seemed too clever by half: long on gimmicks and surface style, and short on substance. I wasn't sure I was willing to give him another try. So, despite the awards and critical applause for THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, I approached it with some trepidation.

So I was pleased to find it such an original and incendiary novel. The raw, unflinching power of his book took me by surprise.

Before starting THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, I had recently read Drew Gilpin Faust's thoughtful study of death in the Civil War, THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING. Her book isn't about slavery per se, but for obvious reasons it plays a part in her narrative. She quotes a letter to an abolitionist newspaper in 1864 from T. Strother:

"To suppose that slavery, the accursed thing, could be abolished peacefully and laid aside innocently, after having plundered cradles, separated husbands and wives, parents and children; and after having starved to death, worked to death, whipped to death, run to death, burned to death, lied to death, kicked and cuffed to death, and grieved to death; and, worst of all, after having made prostitutes of a majority of the best women of a whole nation of people . . . would be the greatest ignorance under the sun."

It was with thoughts like that already swirling around in my head that I began THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. I've read many books on American slavery, both history and fiction. Whitehead's depiction of the evil of that "accursed thing" is one of the most powerful I've read. We see the effect on slaves and slave-owners; fugitives and slave-catchers; free blacks and poor whites; Northerners and Southerners; abolitionists and apologists; heroes and cowards and villains. Character by character, and story by story, he shows us how slavery contaminated everyone and everything in this country.

Reading Whitehead's novel makes it easy to understand radical abolitionism, and the rage and anger expressed in the letter quoted above: the evil and horrors of slavery must be ended, one way or another, even if it takes the evil and horrors of war to accomplish it. Perhaps we take that notion for granted now, but it was anything but consensus in mid-nineteenth-century America.

So, yes, Whitehead's novel is very violent, sometimes shockingly so. But I think it's a necessary violence. There's real power in the hellish, almost surreal vision he's created. His book is at times like a terrifying Hieronymus Bosch painting: the stuff of nightmares. There's an angry "tear it all down" undertone to his book that I found very compelling. But the violence isn't sensationalized or played for cheap shock value. What makes it all so effective is his unsentimental approach. Whitehead writes about the most terrible things in a chilling and matter-of-fact manner, and that underscores the fact that extreme violence and sexual depravity were simply part of the fabric of slavery. He accepts the reality of the violence and evil, and he doesn't shy away from it. There is a brutal honesty in his depiction.

I also admired Whitehead's creative alternate-history take on slavery. He imagines different paths slavery might have taken in various Southern states: from a pseudo-scientific social experiment in South Carolina to a nightmarish vision of pure hell in North Carolina. Come to think of it, maybe the "good intentions" and relative tranquility in South Carolina are even more terrifying in a sense.

Each stop on Cora's journey is a bold and different set piece, with its own supporting cast, which forces us think about slavery in a new way. We're constantly pushed and challenged, and never allowed to become complacent as readers. Just when you think you know where things are headed. . . .

Connecting those set pieces is the railroad itself. Whitehead's conceit of a physical railroad was one of the things about the novel that didn't really work for me. It felt, at best, like a convenient plot mechanism to quickly move the story along to each place he wanted to take us. It allows him to avoid dealing with the journey the slaves actually would have had to make in the real world, with all its trials and tribulations. Whitehead's vision of the underground path to the North is less about the journey and more about the stations along the way he wants to show us.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is not a perfect book. It's rough around the edges. As with his previous books, there's something about Whitehead's prose style that doesn't always agree with me. I often have to backtrack to figure out what he's actually trying to say. His jumps back and forth in time and space can be jarring. And there are other irritations and excesses. Whitehead's characters aren't always successful, other than Cora, who does emerge as a nuanced and memorable heroine who breathes life into the story at every turn.

But perhaps I quibble. In the end, I think it all comes together into a coherent whole. And the cumulative effect is staggering. I won't be forgetting Cora's journey anytime soon.

(Thanks to Doubleday for a complimentary copy. Receiving it did not affect the content of my review.)
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LibraryThing member JBD1
One of the best books I've read in a while, and one I am positive I'll be coming back to. Whitehead's careful pacing and slow reveal of how things work in this alternate timeline are handled beautifully.
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This is the 3rd novel I have read by Colson Whitehead and the best. This book won the national book award for fiction and it is well deserved. Rather than seeing the underground railway for what it was, Whitehead portrays it as an actual railroad. This fantastical aspect of the book lends a creative air to a brutal story of slavery. We are never clear on the actual timeframe of the novel(1840??) or the accuracy of the events. This is not important because what Whitehead does is use his creative license to tell a true story about slavery and all of its brutality but do it in an interesting and creative way. The main character is Cora a teenage slave in Georgia who runs away using the railroad and follows a path through different states all the while being pursued by a slave catcher and the harshness of the white society of the south(and the north). Having just read Homegoing, I had an opportunity to compare 2 books that deal with the reality of slavery and not the sugar coated version we may have been fed growing up and reading history given to us by white people. As Whitehead has said in interviews. If you want to understand the Afro-American experience, you need to look no further than slavery. When you really look at it along with our treatment of Native Americans, you can see that we have a lot to answer for as to how this country was developed and what the "real" America is. This is a book that everyone should read.… (more)
LibraryThing member ASKelmore
Best for: People who like good, intense writing and want a bit more insight into slavery in the U.S.

In a nutshell: Cora escapes the plantation she is enslaved on and faces more challenges and danger.

Line that sticks with me: “Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

Why I chose it: It’s been on my shelf for a few months; my visiting brother-in-law suggested it was a good book to bring on our family vacation last week.

Colson Whitehead is a talented writer. He tells a compelling story about a brutal time in U.S. history, weaving in components that aren’t necessarily accurate from a time perspective but that still happened. He doesn’t pull any punches with the horrors of life as a slave and punishment of slaves, but this book doesn’t feel like torture porn. It is graphic but not voyeuristic.

The story itself is fascinating. Mr. Whitehead follows Cora but also tells some of the story of her grandmother and mother, as well as of the people she encounters along the way. We never sympathize with slave owners, but Mr. Whitehead also allows them to be more than just caricatures with twirling mustaches. But what’s better, he allows for the people helping out on the underground railroad (which, in this telling, is an actual railway that is buried underground) to be less than saintly. I also appreciate that the individuals in this book are fully developed and provided with things to do that aren’t just in service of the main character.

Cora, however, is a remarkable woman. She is conflicted. She is brave, but not reckless. She thinks things through. She is skeptical (rightfully) of others. She doesn’t start out totally naive, but Mr. Whitehead draws her out so that she matures in her understanding of the motivations of others. She wants to survive, and she wants to believe that perhaps better things can happen for her.

I’m happy that this book moved up to the top of my to be read list; if you have it on yours but haven’t picked it up yet, I promise you won’t be disappointed if you start it today.
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LibraryThing member homeschoolmimzi
I don't know how to review this book. It's the kind of story that makes you feel kicked in the gut, like someone threw you up in the air and pummeled you as if you were a pillow that needed to be shook, beat and thrown about. It's a story, a novel, but it's also not. There are thousands of Corys who were slaves and who are now buried underground, in swamps, in mass graves, with ropes around their necks and shackles around their ankles. Thousands of masters who were Randall, who carried around cat-o-nine tails and whips, who incessantly indulged their sadistic side, and are also buried underground. And thousands of slave catchers who were Ridgeway, with their haughty grins, full bellies and greedy appetites. Their names might have been different, their physical attributes may have been dissimilar, but their truths resound.

This novel felt like nonfiction to me. Written starkly and without restraint. 5 stars for its impact and writing.
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LibraryThing member tstan
So very good- there's so much to digest with this book. The writing makes it a fast read, but it's so full and richly written.
As Cora escapes from the Georgia plantation she was born on, she travels on the Underground Railroad, literally. She stops in different southern states, with varying degrees of racism that almost make the plantation look good. And that's all I can say without spoilers.
Whitehead takes a topic that has been much discussed, and categorizes the history of racism, pointing out our ignorances and prejudices, while at the same time telling a great story.
It really makes you think.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
The Underground Railroad was just short-listed for the National Book Award--and boy, does it deserve it! Whitehead focuses mainly on the story of Cora, a slave born on a Georgia cotton plantation. He begins with a brief overview of her grandparents' kidnapping from Africa and her mother Mabel's escape, which occurred when Cora was only eight years old. Young Cora struggles to keep the tiny garden patch that her grandmother and mother handed down, but she soon finds herself living in Hob, the lodging for slave women rejected by the rest. The details of life on the Randall plantation, as witnessed by Cora, are as expected, horrific. Eventually, a slave named Caesar asks her to escape with him. When she later asks why he chose her, his answer is simple: "Because I knew that you could do it."

The critics are all in wonderment over Whitehead's creation of a literal underground railroad--not just a secret network of safe homes, but an actual railroad built underground to carry runaway slaves to safer places. It's an interesting idea, but the real story, of course, is Cora's will to survive, along with the suffering both she and her helpers sustain. I admit that I'm no expert in the topic, so I'm not sure how much of Whitehead's depiction of the various states is based in fact. South Carolina, for example, was considered a progressive state in the novel because they provided cheap housing, literacy, and employment assistance for people of color; but they also pushed a program of sterilization onto young black women. North Carolina, according to Whitehead, "abolished" slavery by banishing blacks from the state, on pain of hanging, and by hiring cheap white labor to do the work of slaves; whites who harbored runaways were subject to the same punishment, carried out in public celebrations. Tennessee was a terrifying place running rampant with slave hunters. The relatively new state of Indiana was still in the throes of labor pains, unsure of how to handle large numbers of black settlers.

I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot. Let me just say that Whitehead has created an indomitable and believable character in Cora, and her story will suck you in. If the fact that this book is an Oprah selection turns you off, just black out that big O on the front cover and keep reading. (Honestly, I don't get this snooty response, since many of her picks have been wonderful.) This one is a definite winner.
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LibraryThing member JJbooklvr
Sure to be one of the most talked about books of the year, the author is not shy at all throwing a bright light into one of the darkest corners of our history. There are times reading that are like driving by an accident where you don’t want to look, but can't help yourself. Then after you don't know if you should cry, feel ashamed, or rage against the injustices committed well before your time. The sheer casualness of the violence and treatment of the slaves is horrifying. Through it all though we have Cora. She is the shining beacon we follow through the story. We feel her hopes and dreams of at first surviving her life on the plantation to can she find a better life in the free North. This book will stick with you for a long time.… (more)
LibraryThing member porch_reader
Whitehead's latest novel has gotten a good deal of attention. For me, this was a solid historical novel about the challenges of escaping from slavery. But what set it apart was Cora, a richly developed character who illustrates the potential and limits of human agency. It was because I cared so much about Cora that I continued turning pages to follow her from stop to stop on the underground railroad.… (more)
LibraryThing member Beamis12
Cora, was a young slave on a Georgia plantation when her mother escaped, leaving Cora to the mercy of the other women in the quarters. Despite hiring a notorious slave tracker, she was never found.To say this plantation did not treat its slaves well is an understatement, some of the punishments devised caused me to, skim over them they are that horrific. When a new intelligent black man, a young man whose master had falsely promised to free him on her death, arrives as a new slave on the plantation, he and a series of events will cause them both to flee.

Second book on slavery I have read in a matter of days, and it doesn't get any easier. Will never understand man's cruelty towards others, no matter how much I read. This is a very good book though, and I just loved the character of Cora, she is amazing in so many ways. The underground railroad played an important part in bringing slaves to freedom and the author does something entirely original with this concept. A touch of magical realism that allows us to follow Cora as she is taken state to state. Forced sterilizations in South Carolinas, the fugitive slave act and its consequences, those hired to being back runaway slaves and what happens to, those who aid these slaves, not a pretty picture. We do meet many good people though, people that at great risk to themselves aided those they could.

Tough read, worthy read. Imaginative and inventive. Another new author for me, but I will be looking into his other books.

ARC from publisher.
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LibraryThing member flourgirl49
I wasn't thrilled with this book - obviously, it's an important subject, but it just didn't have a great impact on me. The author's decision to depict the underground railroad as actually being comprised of trains, conductors and station managers seemed odd and almost kind of a lazy way of not having to deal with getting runaway Cora from one place to another. The book has won a lot of prestigious awards and has received excellent reviews in this forum, so I am definitely in the minority - sorry I couldn't agree with them.… (more)
LibraryThing member CGlanovsky
The Alternate History and Magic Realism elements of the story were put to amazing work here. At first I thought the actual, concrete reality of the Railroad was the only piece of fantasy, but as the trail leads Cora across state lines we're introduced to possibilities of what the "laboratories of democracy" might have done had their principles of "States Rights" been given free reign. From a quietly insidious, Kafkaesque bureaucracy to what was essentially an all-too-plausible-seeming Final Solution, we're shown the different forms man's inhumanity to man can take. The meaning of it, I think, is that as you read you realize (if you have any appreciation for the scope and scale of history) that no fictional atrocity he could throw in has the potential to outweigh the gravity of what the actual institution was. What he's condensed here cannot possibly match what transpired across millions of lives over hundreds of years. As the story kicks you in the stomach, as your heart bleeds for figments of the author's imagination, you wonder how you manage to not walk around with that feeling all the time since so much more than this ACTUALLY HAPPENED to real people: real kidnapping, real murder, real rape, real torture.… (more)
LibraryThing member exlibrismcp
Whitehead takes us on an unconventional journey through a bleak time of history in the United States. Although he uses the factual backdrop of a period of slave-owning times, he re-imagines and creates an alternative landscape in which to tell Cora's story. Cora, a slave on a plantation in Georgia, is asked by another slave named Caesar to attempt an escape via the Underground Railroad. The factual part of the story resides in the accounts of the violence and inhumane treatment of the slaves at the hands of their owners, the slave-catchers, and all others who have a hatred of black people. Yet, the story veers off into a different world in various ways with the foremost being the fact that the Underground Railroad is here conceived as an actual railroad system built in underground tunnels running from South to North. Additionally, the several stops Cora makes along her travels from station to station and her experiences living in those areas are not factual to the histories of those places during this time period. Yet, it is within this re-imagined landscape where Whitehead is able to explore and examine various attitudes and treatments that history in a longer period has thrust upon (or attempted to thrust upon) minorities both here and throughout the world. Among these are forced sterilization, genocide, and re-settlement of their "own kind" in certain established areas. **** Review to be Continued Later****… (more)
LibraryThing member bell7
Cora is a slave in Georgia and when a man named Caesar asks her to run away with him, at first she refuses dismissively. However, she eventually decides to do it and the two take a train on the (actual) underground railroad to try to escape their lives of bondage.

A lot of people here on LibraryThing, in reviews, and in my library have sung enthusiastic praise for this book, so I went in with very high expectations. The writing is excellent, evocative and challenging and not just talking about one historic moment. I could buy the more fantastical elements of the story as it has a level of internal consistency that makes them work. I had a really hard time feeling like I knew the characters, however. Maybe it was intentional distance, or maybe I've just become used to having a character as a narrator or, barring that, a really close third-person point of view that gave me a lot of a character's thoughts and motivations behind their actions. This had some of that, but it was done in such a way that it jarred me out of one story and into another's. I often felt unsettled by the story or storytelling method, which was probably part of the point but as a result I never felt fully immersed or invested in it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Narshkite
Wow. This book is relentless from page one. Bleak? Sure. But also hopeful. People move forward with joy in a reality where most of us would just give up.

I mostly don't read books or see films from the Holocaust or slavery canons any longer. There are many reasons for this. The simplest reason is that I have read a lot of books set during the Holocaust and the slave years in America. I have read fiction and non-fiction, and I am not sure there are too many new angles, too much more I can learn. Once we get past the point I can learn, it just hollows me out for no reason, and it sort of feels like tragedy porn. The most pressing reason though, with respect to fiction, is harder to explain. I often feel manipulated by these books. Its as if the horror of the events themselves, the dehumanization of a group of people and the resulting pain and death, is not enough for people. The writers feel the need to kick it up a notch. As an example I will pull out a movie that I hated and every other person I know adored: "Life is Beautiful." This move turned the freaking Holocaust into a feel-good tearjerker about a big eyed child and a sad clown. It trivialized one of the most horrific moments in western history. I found it insulting to the memory of everyone who suffered, and painful to watch for all the wrong reasons. If we can't be horrified by the truth of the event, if we need a tweak, what does that say about us all?

I read Colson Whitehead's book despite my general moratorium on this subject matter for 2 reasons. First it was recommended but someone whose taste I admire. Second, I have read other books by the author, and thought his penchant for over-intellectualizing things in ways that sometime render stories sterile would work with this subject matter. If anyone was going to tell me a story without cheap sentimentality I figured this was the guy. Oh my, was I right or was I right?!

This is a shameful, painful, incomprehensible story. Morality becomes a moving target. Right and wrong are parsed a hundered different ways, especially by people who start out knowing what good means. It doesn't need to be dressed up. No one has to kick a puppy to bring home the pain, suffering, depravity, pettiness, or the simplicity and dearth of what humans want and need. And sadly at this moment in America, the UK, Syria, the Philippines, and France, and other places, where people cheer as leaders dehumanize people who are suffering, we need to be reminided of how simple and universal and tragic this story is. No bells, no whistles, just stark truth. Perfect.
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LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
Oprah's book club pick is written by a man about a woman. It's tagged magical realism and alternate history and is kind of shocking in the way fantasy mixes with reality. At first I didn't think I'd continue reading due to the Mandingo like detailing of the horrors of slavery, but by the time we get to the railroad it takes off. In Whitehead's world the underground railroad is an actual railroad underground and one of the cities visited in the antebellum south is in South Carolina where there are 10 story buildings with elevators and a governmental sponsored eugenics program along with the Tuskegee syphilis study. All of history swirls around with fantasy and is both revealing and entertaining.… (more)
LibraryThing member obtusata
Heart wrenching, tragic, and entirely worth every uncomfortable moment. While following Cora through several years of her life, we're given an honest account of what life was like for slaves. We're also shown brutal (vicious .. evil, even) slave owners and slave catchers could be back in the day, and how white people who helped slaves were treated just as brutally.

This is not only an engrossing story, it's also an important one.
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LibraryThing member bowedbookshelf
For nearly twenty years the work of Colson Whitehead has been published to wide acclaim, his fiction and nonfiction both receiving many accolades. For this reason I was eager to have the chance to read his new novel that focused on the origination of the race debate in America—slavery. This new novel is due out September 13, 2016. Thanks to Netgalley and Doubleday for the opportunity to read an e-galley.

The story centers around Cora, a motherless slave living on the Randall estate in Georgia. When another slave, Caesar, suggests they attempt an escape, Cora initially demurs…until she draws unwanted sexual attentions from her owner.

The problems with this novel are not in the motivations. Those we understand. The problems are technical: an insufficiently developed Cora, and a mere silhouette of Caesar, the two central characters. When Caesar practically disappears from the narrative one-third of the way in, we barely notice, he was so inconsequential and underdeveloped. Talk about exploitation: he was simply a device.

But this is fiction, and the author can do whatever he wants, like create an actual underground railroad to eliminate the pesky problem of researching and charting a perilous journey to innumerable secret above-ground destinations that would allow us to picture and relive the terror, the deprivation, and the strength of character of all participants in the movement of hunted individuals within a dangerous environment. When the author suggests that white community members in South Carolina at this time were encouraging scientific experiments on, and recommending sterilizations for, freed black men and women, we don’t trust it and are annoyed that we are going to have to do our own research to verify the (outrageous if false) claim in the fictional narrative.

Problems of language are also present here, with untenable and frankly unbelievable hectoring challenges from Cora to her white rescuers along the trail: “You feel like a slave?…Born to it, like a slave?” …and Cora’s challenge to Ridgeway, the homicidal slave catcher, after a chatty exchange: “More words to pretty things up.” When Cora idly wonders whether a new wave of immigrants will replace the Irish, “fleeing a different but no less abject country” we are startled. Where did that come from and why would Cora have any knowledge of, or any particular interest in, conditions in Ireland or anywhere else, for that matter? It just isn’t reasonable and seems out of place.

Then we have the awkwardness of the language: “Cora kept her tongue,” and “Over the years life on Orchard Street passed with a tedium that eventually congealed into comfort,” or “The game of husband and wife was even less fun than she supposed. Jane, at least, turned out to be an unexpected mercy, a tidy bouquet in her arms, even if conception proved yet another humiliation.” These exceptionally ugly, charmless, and clichéd constructions add nothing to our pleasure.

Finally, there is no momentum in this novel. The storyline is broken into chunks that attempt to explain the backstory of some character or another or tell the story of a stop on Cora’s trail to freedom. Each break draws us further and further from any interest in Cora’s forward progress. It seems she (and we) will never get there.

I have seen the glowing reviews for this title, so take my criticisms as one among many. This would not be the title you should expect will give you a rich understanding of the real underground railroad for escaped slaves. For that we will have to look elsewhere.
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LibraryThing member Carmenere
This National Book Award longlister is quite a ride! We board the Underground Railroad in Georgia with runaway slaves, Cora and Caesar and with them the reader sees just what, Lumbly, their first conductor means when he says, "If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you find the true face of America." In her journey toward freedom, she sees the good in people you'd least expect and the bad in those you'd think would befriend her. The trip offers vignette like snapshots of historical relevance from the 1800's during which suffering and brutality is tempered by kindness from strangers.
Whitehead's writing moves forward at a quick pace and often times with a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye, you will be moved and find that this book will live with you a long time.
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LibraryThing member chrisblocker
In many ways, The Underground Railroad is worth the hype. It is an intelligent novel based upon an exceptional idea. It's constructed with vivid scenes and formidable sentences. It is the kind of novel that can easily entice a reader.

At the same time, The Underground Railroad lacks in some areas that may alienate other readers. While the idea of using an actual underground railroad is promising, it does not add depth to the story. In fact, by deviating from historical events, The Underground Railroad loses some of its gravitas. The primary issue arising from The Underground Railroad is one of characters. Largely, I think they fail to connect with the reader. Characters who are central to the plot—characters like Caesar—can be snatched away and barely missed. Even Cora, our protagonist, fails to elicit the kind of emotions given to the protagonists of other well-known neo-slave narratives. Overall, the characters feel rather flat and the result is a story that meanders with only one central thread: a cold railroad beneath the ground.

In the end, the story relied completely on very well-written, vivid scenes, pieced loosely together by a connection to the railroad. For those readers who are able to connect to the story without the use of characters, or those who do connect with Cora, the outcome will be more favorable. Personally, despite some exceptional writing, my interest faltered the longer the story went on.
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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
Novels generate buzz for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it is due to a fantastic marketing team. Other times, it garners word-of-mouth attention. Yet other times, a book is lucky to capture the attention of an influential celebrity. Then there is a book like The Underground Railroad, which has been lucky enough to benefit from all three.

The funny thing about buzz is that it does not always mean a book is good. We can all list many examples of books that generated a lot of buzz but ended up being a disappointment when we finally read it. What makes The Underground Railroad is that it is entirely deserving of every word of praise it is currently generating. It is a novel that will make you sad and angry; it will terrify you and make you think. It is one of the rare novels that not only lives up to the hype, it actually manages to beat your expectations.

In The Underground Railroad, Mr. Whitehead creates a novel that is supremely timely and vital to understanding our present racial tensions by reminding us about our past. Through Cora, readers experience the fear, misery, and daily degradations of life as slave in the South. His reimaginings of each state are equal parts fantasy of what could have been and warning of could be should ongoing racial tensions escalate onto the political front. Mr. Whitehead’s writing is powerful and just about perfect, making an unforgettable story for the ages.
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LibraryThing member Carlathelibrarian
This was a hard book to read and an easy book to read. It was hard because the subject matter is terrible to think about. When we look at the past, the horrendous way humans were treated is heartbreaking to say the least. Easy to read because the way this book was written it drew me in and I could not stop. The metaphoric "Underground Railroad" was translated into actual engines, coaches, cattle cars etc. that took runaway slaves to new places in real tunnels. The station masters and conductors were all in the story, but they ferried their passengers to houses with actual train stations built underground. It was an interesting premise.

The story of Cora is amazing. She spoke to me as I read about the horrors, the highs and the lows of her life. She is an extremely resilient and strong character and I agree with other reviewers that I wish her story did not end in this book. In fact, it just stopped, there needs to be more. I would love to know where she ended up, what her life became etc. I liked the sections that were interjected to give us background on the various people she met along the way that both helped and hindered. It filled out he story knowing more about them and what caused them to do what they did. A wonderful read and I recommend it to anyone.
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LibraryThing member ahef1963
The Underground Railroad is a powerful story mainly well told. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I didn't enjoy reading it, mostly due to the violence inherent in telling any true or fictional story of slavery. The appallingly brutal conditions of slave life are laid stark and bare, and it made for difficult reading. I was somewhat disappointed in the way that the alternate history - an actual underground rail line - was handled, and had expected more of it, given the novel's title. I can see why the novel won the National Book Award, as its call for abolition and fair treatment of people with black skin is almost as necessary in the 21st century as it was in the early decades of American history, but I was not a fan of the book.… (more)



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