The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish 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...

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

The Underground Railroad Reviews

  • Elyse

    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.

    But wait.....

    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-Neh

    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.

    But wait.....

    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!

  • 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 Thelamour

    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 planta

    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.

    To see more reviews, go to The Navi Review at

    and follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview

  • 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.

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