The Underground Railroadby Published 02 Aug 2016
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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.
“All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”
I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with The Intuitionist, having read it in college and not quite grasped it then came back to it later and enjoyed it more. I love everything that Colson Whitehead is about (and I hope to read Zone One soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.
The Underground Railroad starts on the Randall plantation in Georgia around 1812. This plantation is an amalgamation of every horror and tragedy you’ve ever heard of about slavery. Slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, even on display for the entertainment of guests sipping lemonade; attempts at fleeing from bondage or bucking the system are (often arbitrarily) met with public displays of execution, from being strung up and castrated to a good ole-fashioned tarring and feathering. Life on the plantation is as rough for women—who are used as breeders for more slaves, hence more money, and are constantly at the mercy of male appetites, both from those in the ivory tower and those in the fields—as it is for the laboring men. In the midst of it all, Cora, a stray who’s gained a bit of a scarlet letter because her mother fled the plantation and left her behind years back, starts her long journey to freedom one quiet night with nothing but a sack of unripe turnips, two companions and the North Star as their guide. But the untold horrors that she will face ahead of her on this trek will sometimes rival those that she left behind. With a bounty on her head and dreams of education and freedom beckoning her forward, she will stop through a slew of Southern states—all with their own systems of Southern justice and oppression—and find herself on Whitehead’s re-envisaged Underground Railroad.
Within these pages, you’ll embark on a re-imagined historical truth that could only be a creation of Colson Whitehead. Here, the Underground Railroad is—get this—an actual train (or a single, rickety locomotive, but you get the point), complete with a conductor. At times that term is more allegorical than actual, but even the conductors have their own pasts that, at times, ensnare Cora in their trap-like grasp. Human sterilization to control the growth of the Negro population (which, in some states, "problematically" rivals the numbers of the white population), blackface, and the Tuskegee Project are all touched on here, are all experienced by our heroine in some periphery of her journey.
Those are the goodie takeaways.
Now for my qualms. This novel would’ve been better served being written in first person, for Cora’s chapters at the very least. This is a harrowing journey, a terrifying trek into the unknown for a young woman who has never been outside of the confines of the Randall Plantation for her entire life. She’s never worked for her own wages, never bought her own new dress, never even been to see a doctor. We want to see, touch and taste every moment of what she feels. We want to quiver when she quivers and scream when she hurts. We want to experience these truths re-imagined for ourselves, because this is a remarkable journey set in a harrowing past that our country would rather keep hushed and obscured. To truly break us out of this—to truly immerse us in this and better make the point that Whitehead sought to make—we should’ve been squarely in Cora’s shoes, not watching her from above in a slightly removed, vaguely clinical 3rd person.
While Whitehead’s intellectualism serves his plots well, it doesn’t do the greatest wonders for soulful and immersive execution. Perhaps that comes down to being a matter of personal preference. I found his writing style, as was the case in his The Intuitionist as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse, thou art an allusive thing! Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of it here, and by that I mean that this was quite the bull-ride read: jerky and rough. I had to re-read several passages, because segues from one event to the next were often non-existent. Suddenly, you were in a saloon, or in the middle of an attack by rogue outlaws, then learning letters in a schoolhouse. Literally, a person could go from alive to dead in a single, four-sentence paragraph! Um, what?? (Shaking head vigorously.) What just happened now?
Also, I could’ve done without the backstory chapters of the minor characters. Every single one of those “let-me-elaborate-on-this-(minor)-character’s-past-life” chapters could’ve been gutted from this manuscript—all except for one. And that one you’ll know when you read it.
Still, Colson Whitehead managed to touch on the justifications and absolutions that the antebellum South whispered to themselves at night to justify their actions, biblical references that laid the way for Manifest Destiny and all the other gluttonous rationalizations that makes slavery possible, in any land, in any era. And for that, I applauded him.
The story itself was great—a truly epic adventure—but the pace at which it jerked, sometimes lullingly slow and others at whiplash-inducing speeds, turned me off. And, I have to say, any novel where I feel even the slightest urge to skim and skip ahead can never get 4 stars from me. But his work is definitely unique in its own right, and for that I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who has read the blurb and marked it as to-read, to anyone who’s already familiar with Whitehead’s talents and appreciated them, and for those who have yet to become familiar with them. I have a deep respect for this author; the style just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped this time, and for that I award 3.5 stars ***
I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Doubleday, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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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!
The Underground Railroad is an intense ride. I had not taken "railroad" to be a literal thing before reading the book. Like Cora, the protagonist, I thought it was just an informal way of smuggling escaped slaves up north. Now, I am curious to visit some of the stations should they still exist.
The book itself is one of courage, brutality, and hope. It is a condemnation of the despicable crime against humanity that was slavery (and I have ancestors that were guilty of that unforgivable iniquity) with vivid, terrifying depictions of the violence that kept the institution going. It was also sad to see that the white hate of black skin went as far north as Indiana - but then, no, is was unsurprising at the same time. It made me reflect on the current rehabilitation of racism in Drumpf's America and how little so much of the white population has really learned from this shameful past.
I am not sure that this book is on the level of other Pulitzers: despite the vivid characters and fast-paced action, I felt the pace was uneven and the descriptions a little lacking. Nonetheless, it was an important read and a moving one. I just wonder if we will ever have an accounting of the number of horrible deaths that transpired, the number that got away like Cora, and the ones that didn't.
What a world, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? 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. On the plantation she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand. - Colson Whitehead
People get ready, there’s a train a-coming - Curtis MayfieldIn Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Underground Railroad, he takes a figurative term and gives it a literal application. This Underground Railroad posits a literal brick, steel, and steam system that transports fleeing slaves from southern captivity to what is hoped to be a form of freedom. This RR has actual station agents and train conductors. Most importantly, it has passengers.
Image from Whitehead’s Twitter feed
Our guide through this underworld is Cora, 17 when we meet her, a slave on the Randalls’ property, in Georgia. Encouraged to flee with him by fellow slave, Caesar, she demurs, fearing failure and dire circumstances. But when her situation at the property becomes too damaging to endure, she signs on.
Throughout the tale, we get bits of backstory. We learn of Cora’s mother, a slave who had fled when Cora was 11, never to be seen or heard from again. We learn some details of slave life. That brutality was a central feature will come as no surprise to anyone, but some of the specifics of such an existence will be news to many of us.
The book had a particularly long gestation.
I had the idea for the book about 16 years ago, recalling how when I was a kid, I thought the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad and when I found out it wasn’t, I was disappointed. So I thought it was a cool idea, and then I thought, “Well, what if it actually was a real railroad? That seems like a cool premise for a book.” But I had just finished up a research-heavy project and wasn’t up for that kind of ordeal again, and I didn’t feel mature enough or up to the task. But every couple of years, when I was between books, I would pull out my notes and ask myself if I was ready. And inevitably I would realize that I wasn’t really up for it. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I really committed to the idea. - from the Bookpage interviewThere is much here that hearkens back to literary classics. Cora might certainly feel a kinship with Jean Valjean of Les Miserables, escaping a wretched life, but pursued by a relentless, Javert-like slave catcher, Arnold Ridgeway. Ridgeway had been enraged for years that he’d failed to find and bring back Cora’s mother, Mabel, who had fled six years earlier. One might also think of stories like Gulliver’s Travels, in which each stop along the journey points out another form of madness.
Colson Whitehead - image from the NY Times
The route takes Cora from Georgia to what seems a relatively benign South Carolina, then on to North Carolina for some new forms of horror, and finally on to Indiana, which offers its own forms of misery. Whitehead is not shy about part of his plan. I thought, why not write a book that really scares you?
Whitehead was more interested in communicating the internal rather than external historical reality.
The first chapter in Georgia I tried to make realistic and stick to the historical record, and then after that, I wanted to stick to the truth of the black experience but not necessarily the facts. As we go to South Carolina and Indiana and the different states that Cora goes to, I am playing with history and time, moving things up to talk about the Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and the eugenics movement. So in some sense, it’s not really a historical novel at all because I’m moving things around. - from the Bookpage interviewWhitehead peppers Cora’s story with bizarre events, like regular public lynchings in one town, an early and bitingly grim version of public entertainment, reminiscent of feeding Christians to lions for the delight of the townspeople. A living history museum in which Cora plays the part of slaves through history in diverse tableaux makes your spidey senses wonder what might result.
Whitehead took his inspiration from diverse sources. Cora spend a protracted time in an attic, terrified of being discovered, and with good reason, as public lynchings are regularly held right across the street in a public park. The inspiration for that was Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which Harriet hid for years in a crawl space, terrified of being captured.
Primarily I read slave narratives. There are a few histories of the Underground Railroad; one of the first ones I read, which proved the most useful was Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich. That gave me an overview of the railroad, but the main thing was just reading the words of former slaves themselves. - from the Bookpage interviewIt would be a challenge to remain unmoved by Cora’s journey, and impossible to come away from reading this book without learning some things about the slave experience and the conditions that people treated as property endured.
One may take issue with decisions made by this or that person in the story, but it is worth suspending a bit of disbelief to appreciate the journey on which Whitehead leads us. No one will force you to read The Underground Railroad, but choosing to do so would be an excellent expression of your freedom.
Review posted – June 20, 2017
Publication date – August 2, 2016
Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages
August 2, 2016 – NY Times - Colson Whitehead on Slavery, Success and Writing the Novel That Really Scared Him
- by Jennifer Schuessler
-----Oprah’s interview with CW requires tolerating it having been broken down into very small chunks, each with a 15 second ad that repeats for each section, which is scream-inducing
----- Oprah, American history and the power of a female protagonist - Bookpage.com – by Stephanie Harrison
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----- People Get Ready
-----Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
-----Wade in the Water