The Underground Railroadby Published 02 Aug 2016
|The Underground Railroad.pdf|
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s 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. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
The Underground Railroad Reviews
3.5 stars rounded up.
This is a difficult book to read with the horrific treatment and gruesome punishments of African American slaves so much a part of the narrative, but it is essential that we read this and other books like it . We need these powerful, compelling and gut wrenching reminders of what life was like on a plantation in Georgia and other places in the South and what it might have been like to be a runaway. This story is told mainly from the perspective of a young slave woman named Cora and the portrayal of her escape and journey toward freedom. I was also moved by the story of Cora's grandmother Ajarry, captured in Africa and transported to America. Cora's mother Mabel also has her story.
Colson Whitehead imagines the The Underground Railroad as if it were an actual railroad with trains and conductors. While this work is a fictional representation of the time and place and does an excellent job of conveying the time and place and what seems like a genuine feeling of what it was like to be Cora, I have to admit I had some reservations about making it a real railroad. I felt like the creation of an actual railroad in a way diminishes the the true Underground Railroad whose strength was the people moving people to freedom not a railway but a network of routes and a group of people who didn't have a railroad to move them around . I'm sure there will be much discussion of this and I may be an outlier here.
So for this and the fact that I found it a little slow going and just had too many characters, I would rate this 3.5 stars if half stars were allowed . But overall , this is just such an important book that I have to round it up to 4 stars . Cora's story is one that we mustn't forget because she represents so many of the real life slaves who we have to remember.
Thanks to Doubleday and Edelweiss.
Every year, I have either never heard of the films nominated for the Best Picture Academy award or when I see them, I don’t think the movie is all that great; long drawn out scenes with landscapes, close ups of glowering faces, monotonous dialogue, etc. I know that every movie doesn’t have to be action packed, but forced artsy-ness or movies nominated for content but not quality are frustrating.
The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I have read other Pulitzer Prize winners and generally I have found them to be just okay. Or, in looking through the list of winners, I have not even heard of them at all. Because of this, Pulitzer Prize and Best Picture Awards are very similar to me. I really am not sure what the ultimate criteria ends up being, but apparently it is not criteria that I would use.
Disclaimer – as you can probably tell already, I did not like this book. That does not mean that I wish to convince you that you should not like it or not read it. It does not mean that if you gave it 5 stars I want to fight about it. All it means is that this book just did not work for me and I cannot tell why it was so great. We can discuss our differences in opinion, but there will be no need to argue!
I am stuck between 1 and 2 stars on this book. If there was a half star option, I would move forward with a 1.5 star rating. By the time I am done typing this review, maybe I will be able to settle on which one I will go with.
I listened to the audiobook. I always have an audiobook going on and this is the first time in a long time that I can remember fighting to maintain interest and pay attention to the story (in fact, I think the last time that happened was with All the Light We Cannot See – another Pulitzer Prize winner). With this being the case, at least one star from 5 has to be removed.
The characters and the story for me were just blah. I have read other stories and books with difficult subject matter about people being oppressed. In those books the characters were charismatic and impassioned. You felt for the characters and their plight. The story is enthralling and you care about what happens and the ultimate outcome of the story. (Some examples of this are The Help, Between Shades of Gray, The Power of One, etc.). With The Underground Railroad the story was fairly flat for me and the characters kind of uninteresting – reading about what they were going through was more like a bland history book than a story meant to entertain and draw emotion. Considering the subject matter, this was rather unfortunate to me. Also, there was lots of time jumping so I was frequently confused about what was happening, to whom, and in what time frame - this probably led to the fight to stay interested. With this being the case, another star has been removed, bringing us to 3.
The book is called The Underground Railroad. I thought that this was going to be about The Underground Railroad. Instead, the railroad is just a bit part in the main story [spoilers removed]. I know that an author can name a book anything they want, but this name seemed to point toward a very specific plot point that ended up being minor throughout – and that felt weird to me. The best analogy I can think of is if all the Harry Potter books had his name replaced with “Hogsmeade” in all the titles. While Hogsmeade is a place they go in every book, and sometimes important things happen there, it is hardly the most important location in the book, so why would you put it in the title? With this being the case, another star has been removed, bringing us to 2.
(Side note on the "Railroad" itself. Seemed like a bit of Magical-Realism that to me felt forced and out of line with the rest of the book. For me, the author was trying too hard for the literal metaphor.)
I know it probably seems like I am being harsh on this book, but it won awards! It was Oprah’s Book Club pick! The subject matter is in a genre that I have read other captivating books from and was led to believe this one would be right up there with them. My Goodreads friends have consistently been giving it high marks. I was expecting a big payoff! I was expecting to be moved to tears! I was expecting to be first in line when they make this into a movie! But . . . none of this happened. I cannot tell why it won awards. I am not sure why my friends give it high praise. I cannot put this up there with other books I have read with similar subject matter. And, I will not go see this if they make it into a movie. With this being the case, another star has been removed, bringing us to 1.
So, 1 star . . . that’s it for me. I hope that you enjoyed it, and I don’t discourage others from trying it, but I cannot recommend it or go higher with my rating.
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.
Cora is a slave at a Georgia plantation in the antebellum South. When a fellow slave tells her about the Underground Railroad, she finds the courage to run for her freedom. Thus begins her odyssey as a runaway slave, where her adventures introduce her to unprecedented horrors and lead her to disheartening realizations.
The Underground Railroad rekindles the discussion and study of slavery. The harsh realities of those dark chapters in American history are presented with brute bluntness but remain eloquent in their presentation. It makes for a strange but savory contrast, to read about something so dreadful yet have it conferred with such sophistication:
The noxious air of the hold, the gloom of confinement, and the screams of those shackled to her contrived to drive [her] to madness. Because of her tender age, her captors did not immediately force their urges on her, but eventually some of the more seasoned mates dragged her from the hold six weeks into the passage.
Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always - the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.
Peppered throughout the book are short, engrossing chapters highlighting secondary or even tertiary characters, but the main point of focus is Cora, a sympathetic character if ever there was one. Cora only knows one life, and it is rife with degradation, abuse, and sorrow.
Cora didn't know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.
Every step of her journey forces Cora to question whether or not she is still chattel. Freedom - in the purest, truest sense of the word - seems to always remain just beyond her reach.
What a world this is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your haven. [. . .] 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.
The author chose his timeline well and integrates other interesting and sickening moments in American history. In addition to slavery, The Underground Railroad touches on the surreptitiously induced sterilization of blacks; the secret studies of syphilis, conducted by white doctors on black patients without their knowledge; and the rise in the practice of autopsy and the subsequent need for corpses, which led to grave robbing and the irreverent disposal of deceased black peoples' bodies for scientific study.
The writing is superb throughout. Carefully selected word choices lend themselves to having harsh and long-standing impact on readers.
The stone vault above was white with splashes of red, like blood from a whipping that soaked through a shirt.
He wrung out every possible dollar. When black blood was money, the savvy business man knew to open every vein.
At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capitol, profit made flesh.
This book is an accessible read, breezy for the ease of its writing by weighty for the depth of its subject matter. It's no wonder The Underground Railroad won the 2016 National Book Award for fiction.
I came to this book with some resistance, regardless of it being the Pulitzer Prize winner for 2017.
I've owned the physical book since last year. It kept being easier to read something else.
I felt it was my duty to read this book.
Haven't I done my duty?
I've read three James Baldwin books 'this' year....I've seen the movie "12 Years a Slave", and "Birth of a Nation".
I've read "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, "The Kitchen House", by Kathleen Grissom, "Between The World And Me", by Ta-Nehisi Coates, etc.
Still needed to do my duty!!!
My expectations going into this book were LOW. I saw more 3-stars and 'under' until 'recently'. The very first few reviews I saw last year had 'negative' things to say about this book. I thought .... "great, one less painful book for me to experience"!
And then......something happened- I read a VERY MOVING 5 star review by *Julie
Christine Johnson*......that seriously stayed with me. I knew it was time to read this book soon.
STILL with some resistance ---BUT...I knew I believed whole heartedly in everything I read in Julie's review. This was a case where reading reviews- low & high... WAS SUPPORTIVE to me BEFORE I read the book. NONE of the reviews spoiled my own reading.
I HIGHLY-HIGHLY RECOMMEND READING MANY REVIEWS- HIGH - LOW- MIDDLE - and DNF....if on the fence about reading "The Underground Railroad".
Given my expectations started out LOW .. I was pleasantly happy to discover I enjoyed reading this book much more than I thought. At the same time, I tend to agree with some of the low reviews, and some of the high reviews.
In Navidad Thelamour's review, she says: "The novel would've been better served being written in first person, for Cora's chapters at the 'very' least". I AGREE WITH HER!! ......I think - as the reader - we might have FELT what she was experiencing MUCH MORE ... if we felt as if she were speaking to us. It might have been even 'more' unbearable to read though.
I was especially inspired by Poingu's review.
She says: "I finished utterly exhilarated. This novel is a triumphant act of imagination". I AGREE!!!!!
However, Poingu goes on to mention something she did not like.
Poingu says: "There were too many characters to superficially drawn; sometimes I felt there was too much narrative summary; the bad guys trended toward evil caricatures rather than multidimensional people; there was an odd distancing effect between the reader and any one character because there is so little offered of each characters interior thinking". I ALSO AGREE!!!!!!
I could never have put that sentence together so eloquently as Poingu. - thank you, Poingu!
I 'stopped ' trying to remember all the minor characters. There were TONS!!! Almost TOO MANY!
However-like Poingu, .... SHE LOVED READING THIS BOOK. I did too!!! So, for me, I didn't worry about the minor flaws. Or all the minor characters . It was the greater context which I was taking in.
I ended up being blown away by the powerful allegory of the Underground Railroad... the crafting of this story played with 'my imagination'.
Very clever creative structure. We get to keep dancing in imaginary visuals of being - on a train - a real train with conductors- but then are jolted by horrifying beatings, lynchings staged like a theater production, rapes, and brutal truths from state to state . Everything about slavery was so terrifying--that by the end this novel, I was left with the incredible achievement "The Underground Railroad" is.
Cora is on the run from Arnold Ridgeway - the master slave catcher ( she didn't know she was on the run when she first learned about FREE NORTH, that Caesar told her about). Things are not as easy as 'free'.
From South Carolina, to North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, on to 'the north'....at every step of the way... there is terror, hatred, atrocity, gruesome repulsion.
The descriptions are horrific. Its hard to be with SO MUCH VIOLENCE!
However, the brutal honesty lights a fire in us. We DO NOT WANT TO EVER ALLOW HISTORY TO REPEAT ITSELF.... so yes, we I'm glad I read this book. Even with some minor flaws --- I can't give this novel less than 5 stars.
I'm sad - sorry - angry and ashamed- for all the horrific sufferings in our past history over racial inequality!
At the same time --I'm left with hope - strength- and our humanity.
Brutal and Beautiful Book! .....I hope they make a movie.... I think the impact would be powerful.
There are some great interviews of Colson Whitehead. He is such a humble and wonderful man! Worth looking up!
This is my first read by Colson Whitehead and it makes me think his style may not be to my tastes.
It's personal preference, I'm sure. There are some beautiful sentences, some genius structural choices, and many great ideas. Indeed, the re-imagining of history where the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad is a great idea in itself. I just found it lacking in anything resembling emotion. It's a cold, distant, impersonal novel and it didn't pull me in.
All of the secondary characters are undeveloped and forgettable, but more than this, Cora herself wasn't given enough personality and development to really drag me into her world. The other central character - Caesar - is even less developed. I will probably have forgotten them both by tomorrow. Perhaps a first-person narrative would have better suited the subject matter and helped warm us to the characters.
In this story, Cora and Caesar are slaves at the Randall estate in Georgia. Caesar proposes an escape via the Underground Railroad, which Cora initially refuses, but later agrees to when her situation becomes more dire. The book is full of every monstrous thing committed by slavers - beatings, sexual assault, executions - but I felt distanced from it because of the impersonal nature of the narrative. It was horrific, but in the way a history textbook is horrific. We should have been right there in the middle of the story with Cora, hearts pounding in fear, and yet I felt somewhat removed, reading - it seemed - an almost clinical account of history.
The jerky structure that jumps from the main plot to some backstory and back again doesn't make it any easier to become invested. My interest in Cora's story waned some more every time the author picked us up and dropped us somewhere else. With no emotional connection to the characters and little opportunity to become connected to the plot, I felt like this book full of clever ideas never became one I was truly affected by - no enjoyment, no sadness, no anger, no nothing.
Colson Whitehead is obviously smart. He obviously did a shitload of research. But I just didn't care.
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