The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

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...

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Title:The Underground Railroad
Author:Colson Whitehead
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Edition Language:English

The Underground Railroad Reviews

  • Roxane

    Excellent writing, strong concept. I am personally burnt out on slavery narratives so I cannot say this was a pleasure to read. So much unrelenting horror. Whitehead does an excellent job of portraying slavery and America as a slave nation. The idea of the underground railroad, as an actual railroad, is so smart and interesting. I wish he had actually done more with the railroad itself. There were some sentences where I thought, "Now you are just showing off." The amount of research the author d

    Excellent writing, strong concept. I am personally burnt out on slavery narratives so I cannot say this was a pleasure to read. So much unrelenting horror. Whitehead does an excellent job of portraying slavery and America as a slave nation. The idea of the underground railroad, as an actual railroad, is so smart and interesting. I wish he had actually done more with the railroad itself. There were some sentences where I thought, "Now you are just showing off." The amount of research the author did is clear, throughout. There is some really interesting structural work at play. I wanted some of the secondary characters to be more fully developed. This book is going to do very well, and rightly so.

  • Navidad Thélamour

    I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with

    , 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

    soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.

    starts on the Ran

    I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with

    , 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

    soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.

    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

    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

    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

    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

    as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse,

    ! 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

    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,

    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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  • Emily May

    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

    and it didn't pull me in.

    All of the secondary characters are

    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

    and it didn't pull me in.

    All of the secondary characters are

    , 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.

    . 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 -

    .

    Colson Whitehead is obviously smart. He obviously did a shitload of research. But I just didn't

    .

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  • Trish

    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. Wh

    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

    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.

  • Matthew

    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 an

    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

    – 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

    ,

    ,

    , 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

    . 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.

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