The Underground Railroad

August 9, 2017
The Underground Railroad Book Cover The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead
Historical Fiction
Doubleday
August 2nd, 2016
Audiobook
306
Library

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 as planned and, 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. 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.

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. 

(via Goodreads)

 

Upon picking up The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, I knew only a few things: 1) Obama AND Oprah picked this book as a Must Read for 2016. 2) It won both the National Book Award AND Pulitzer Prize. 3) I was intimidated by the prestige, hype, and content of this book. I wasn’t certain I would be able to appreciate this book in the way it was intended. The Underground Railroad surprised and delighted me. In the end, I couldn’t be happier this book has been written. A wonderful tale of both horrors and courage, The Underground Railroad resonated with me in ways I never expected it would.

Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. 

I have read about and studied the Underground Railroad before. Always, these stories shocked me with their cunning, bravery, and courage. But I realize now that all of those stories pale in comparison with the truth. While Whitehead’s story is fiction, and frequently embellishes or takes from real events, it is no less powerful or terrifying than other stories featuring escaping slaves. I frequently had to pause the audiobook to calm myself and get my thoughts under control. While these events were not directly real, they all happened in some way, shape, or form, as they came from Whitehead’s extensive research of slave stories.

A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.

In Whitehead’s tale, a slave named Cora escapes her plantation in Georgia and embarks on a thrilling tale to find freedom. In The Underground Railroad, escaped slaves actually travel on a real underground railroad. It’s like a child’s fantasy when you are only able to understand things literally. Trying to catch trains, finding conductors, and escaping slave catchers, Cora embarks on a journey similar to Gulliver’s Travels. At each stop, each state and city, she finds a seemingly completely different world with different rules and different expectations.

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’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness. 

Reading this book felt like reading magical realism. I adore magical realism. The idea of an actual train traveling underground with escaped slaves popping up and having to re-learn how the world works at each stop fascinated me. It gave Whitehead the opportunity to explore many different aspects of a potential America. For example, in Whitehead’s South Carolina, the white citizens were progressive and welcoming their black brethren into the community. Only, the “medical examinations” the black citizens are being subjected to are actually eugenics. . In North Carolina, the whites celebrate the extermination of their black citizens by hanging any they find each Friday night at their Friday Festival. And so the settings and expectations change.

All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.

This narration style really worked for me. As the story progressed, we learned more and more of Cora’s past and pieced together the history of this alternate-universe America. I’ve read people stating the story would be more powerful if it was a first-person perspective, instead of third. More powerful, but for me, it would have been unreadably raw. From this third-person perspective, we get to watch Cora grow and learn about the world beyond the plantation. The deviations from true history were jarring at first for me, but I feel it suited the purpose of illuminating this important history. Strangely enough, Whitehead’s interstitial moments and chapters where characters other than Cora were explored didn’t ever feel jarring. Reading advertisements offering rewards for escaped slaves, as well as chapters focusing on characters who only briefly touched on Cora’s life, showed that the scope of this tale is far beyond the boundaries of Cora and her exploits. It added a depth and gravity I would never have known otherwise.

Cora didn’t know what ‘optimistic’ meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the world. None of them had heard it before. She decided it meant trying.

While I do agree that The Underground Railroad is an incredible tale, I found that at times it could come across in a manner reflecting my least favorite social studies teacher–where I was being simultaneously lectured and pounded over the head to acknowledge America’s massive sins. I understand why this could be intentional coming from Whitehead, but it ground the narrative to a halt for me when I ran into these moments. And they popped up all over the place.

The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.

For example, Cora waxes eloquent at one point about the atrocities the white man did to the native population. We a lectured about the grueling details of the Trail of Tears and how it parallels the treatment of blacks. Or a description of miles and miles of tree-lined road filled with hanging black corpses dubbed “the Freedom Trail” in mockery of the true Freedom Trail in Boston. Or the description of a Georgian dinner party where white attendees sat and ate their dinner while watching a black man burned alive. All described in great detail and with great moral judgments against those obviously in the wrong. I just… I felt a bit numb by the unrelenting horrors and lectures on how to act like a civil human end of the story.

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.

A tough and worthy read, Whitehead’s tale bravely explores the physical, social, and psychological wounds slavery inflicts and did inflict upon American society. Reading The Underground Railroad won’t be a light and fluffy adventure story, and it might lecture a bit, but it certainly should have the honor of being read by you— particularly if you enjoy literary or AU historical fiction. I won’t be picking up Whitehead’s works again soon, but I will certainly be reading them in the future!


What do you think?

  • Have you read The Underground Railroad? Did you enjoy it? Why or why not?
  • How do you feel about an underground railroad in the literal sense? Does it appeal to you?
  • What was the last book you read which lectured you about ethics and morality?
  • What other Colson Whitehead books would you recommend I read?

39 Comments

  • Kourtni @ Kourtni Reads August 9, 2017 at 10:34 am

    This is a fantastic review! I really want to read this book and now I think I might have to bump it up on my TBR a bit.

    • Jackie B August 10, 2017 at 11:34 am

      Thanks, Kourtni! It’s completely worth it.

  • Laila@BigReadingLife August 9, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    I’m glad you liked it. I absolutely loved it. I think you’re right about not getting inside Cora’s head too much – it gave the reader a “safer” distance from which to experience the horrors she was going through. It was a completely absorbing, heartbreaking journey.

    Colson Whitehead is a fascinating writer who explores lots of different genres. I’ve read The Intuitionist, which was kind of a noir-ish mystery combined with racial issues and a bit of speculative fiction. It was good, worth the read. But my favorite of his besides this one (of the ones I’ve read so far) is John Henry Days. Imagines the legend of John Henry as a real life person and tells the story of a present-day black journalist covering a modern festival dedicated to the legend. I read it a LONG, long time ago, but I remember loving it. I’ve got Whitehead’s Apex Hides The Hurt on my nightstand to read soon (It’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.) I haven’t read Zone One only because it’s about zombies, and I have a thing about zombies.

    • Jackie B August 10, 2017 at 3:56 pm

      I’m so glad you loved it! I see you read some of Whitehead’s other novels before The Underground Railroad. Do you think that helped you connect? I felt like I struggled to really get into the book for the first 50 pages or so, just because I was getting used to Whitehead’s writing style.

      I will certainly check out some of his other books! John Henry Days is now on my TBR. And I totally get you about zombies. They are totally not my thing.

  • KrystiYAandWine August 10, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    Wow! Wonderful review! This book sounds really poignant and fascinating. I would love to read this one. The narration style sounds really unique and interesting and the premise totally has me hooked. Plus, I mean, if Obama and Oprah recommended it… I’m so glad you posted about this one!

    • Jackie B August 12, 2017 at 12:19 pm

      Thanks, Krysti! It leaves a lot for us to chew on, that’s for sure. I’ve been strongly encouraged to read more of Whitehead’s works for the same reasons you mention above– unique narration styles and addicting premises. I hope that the other books I check out are just as inspiring!

      • KrystiYAandWine August 13, 2017 at 1:45 pm

        Well, happy reading to you! You’ll have to keep us posting if you keep reading other books by Whitehead.

        • Jackie B August 13, 2017 at 3:12 pm

          I plan on it! It just might be a while. That TBR any all… 😉

  • hannahpotamus August 10, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    I LOVE historical fiction!! I’ve had my eye on this for a while now, and I feel like this’ll be a very eye-opening read. I’m also always intrigued by magical realism, so now I’m looking forward to this even more!

    • Jackie B August 12, 2017 at 12:23 pm

      The magical realism isn’t really overt– it’s subtle in a way that stems from an understanding of history. So, in the sense that the underground railroad wasn’t a real railroad, or that each city seems to be in thrall of their own racial views and perspectives. It more-or-less just had the *feeling* of magical realism. In a frightening, dark magic kind of way.

      • hannahpotamus August 12, 2017 at 11:39 pm

        Oh, that sounds so beautiful! I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it the next time I happen to visit the bookstore. 🙂

  • Dani @ Perspective of a Writer August 11, 2017 at 12:03 am

    WOW! What a wonderful review, Jackie!! I love how you related the writing to magical realism… it intrigued me way more than I thought it would from your review <3 This would be perfect for me to read for my book club!! I love when POV is skewed from normal first person too!

    • Grab the Lapels August 11, 2017 at 6:56 am

      It’s good to hear more people like magical realism. I often her a dislike of it, and I think that’s because some writers try to use it to make things work for them that shouldn’t, and that’s not how magical realism functions. Done well, it’s spectacular.

      • Jackie B August 12, 2017 at 9:19 pm

        Re: GTL and magical realism — you are soooo right! I adore magical realism. It’s my favorite genre. But I wish authors wouldn’t abuse it so… I always tell anyone who “hates” magical realism to read The Night Circus and then come back to me. I have a 100% conversion rate at this point. #SorryNotSorry

        • Grab the Lapels August 13, 2017 at 12:04 pm

          I like it in Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, too. The Night Circus is actual magic-magic, right? The magic isn’t entered and exited and everything is seamlessly normal, like before.

          • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 8:58 am

            Well, that’s the tricky thing about The Night Circus. It’s never really described as actual magic. But it certainly seems to be. Which is what makes it cool! The magic of the circus– how much of it is real versus slight-of-hand? <3 <3 <3 that book.

            I have read Like Water for Chocolate, but neither of the other. Rushide, honestly, because it just intimidates me. I’ll need to read them both some day, that’s for sure. It can’t be my favorite genre otherwise!

            • Grab the Lapels August 15, 2017 at 1:49 pm

              The most famous author of medical realism, of course, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Haven’t read him, though.

              • Jackie B August 16, 2017 at 8:36 am

                I haven’t EITHER! It makes me feel like I can’t say that my favorite genre is magical realism. But, honestly, I’m a bit nervous to read his works since people have told me they are a bit… um, male-centric? I’m afraid my modern feminist ways might make me dislike his works. So, I keep putting it off. Oops.

              • Grab the Lapels August 16, 2017 at 11:24 am

                Well, I haven’t read Garcia because his books are huge and the plot synopses don’t appeal to me, so we’re both missing out (maybe). 😉

              • Jackie B August 18, 2017 at 10:16 am

                Maybe. 😉

    • Jackie B August 12, 2017 at 5:34 pm

      This will certainly be an amazing book club book. There are TONS of things to talk about! And probably something everything will be able to speak to, as well. It certainly isn’t *real* magical realism, but sometimes it really felt like that.

      If you read it, let me know what you think! I’d love to hear how the book club goes, too. 🙂

  • Grab the Lapels August 11, 2017 at 6:55 am

    When I was a kid, I definitely thought the underground railroad was literally just that–I’ve always had a big imagination. So, when I learned that it was not really a train, not only was I pissed off, but I had a hard time actually picturing the contact points of homes across the nation. That made much less sense to me. It wasn’t until I learned more about the Holocaust and how people hid Jews that I realized the underground railroad was similar, but a moving flow of people instead of hiding in one place. I haven’t read Whitehead, but I have read a lot a lot a lot of black fiction. I’ve taught classes on it, actually. I tend to not read/like as much newer black fiction because I, too, find that it wants to tell readers to feel bad instead of showing a story/person/image and letting us come to the conclusion that no, this isn’t good, and oh, we have V today because in the Black Power Movement W, and in the Harlem Renaissance we had X, and in the Reconstruction era we had Y, etc.

    • Jackie B August 12, 2017 at 9:17 pm

      I first learned about the Underground Railroad in Kindergarten. My teacher did a really good job helping us understand it wasn’t a real railroad, but I definitely struggled to understand how it worked. Heck, I still struggle to understand it! I just can’t even imagine how they ran through the night and made it safely across hundreds of miles…

      You have no idea how much it means to me to hear you say this, Melanie! Yes! I don’t want to feel bad, I just want to be educated and help ensure it doesn’t happen again. There is some residual guilt for all peoples for all sorts of atrocities. I’m not trying to say “This isn’t my fault”, but, uh, it isn’t. Help me heal the world, don’t make me want to shy away from it.

      Any recommendations for black literature which won’t make me feel bad?

      • Grab the Lapels August 13, 2017 at 12:01 pm

        It’s my opinion–and this is totally based on observational and anecdotal evidence–that the books written today are asking a white audience to stop being complicit as a result of complacency. Whenever you hear someone say “things are better now” or “I don’t see color,” there’s a problem. Of course, I’ve heard much less of that in recent years, but 8-10 years ago, I head such sentiments a lot lately. What this means is the white community “sees” that things are alright and are not acting to spread the word on ways things are NOT good at all. The first call I always hear from protesters is something like “white people, don’t tell black people how much you love them, tell the white people in your own community.” And this makes sense to me. But when someone writes a book to teach anything, much of the subtlety is lost. I would recommend you read If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (1974), A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959), Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945), and Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928). These are mostly shorter works (two novellas, a play), and though Wright’s autobiography is longer, it’s hard to put down. I would also read some Paul Laurence Dunbar. You can read a couple of his poems here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/paul-laurence-dunbar Scroll all the way to the bottom. “A Negro Love Song” is my favorite poem ever. Dunbar’s work is late 1800’s, and it’s best if you read all of these works in orders so you can see how they build off of each other.

        • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 8:49 am

          You’re right– I agree that the subtletly is definitely lost when reading. Part of that is tone, but part of that (for me at least) is that as a reader I assume everything is a judgement against me. Which is a silly thing to assume, but it’s hard not to view it that way when the message can be so aggressive at times.

          I also totally agree that it’s about the message whites should be sharing with whites when it comes to race. *sigh* After the events of this past weekend, I just feel so lost and helpless. It’s frustrating! All my IRL friends are a echo chamber of SJWs. Right now, all I want to do is read and better understand. I just wish there was something I could do to take action against the hate. It’s so overwhelming.

          Yay poems and plays! This is super exciting. I just reserved a copy of the Lorraine Hansberry Audio Collection from my library which contains full-cast audio recordings of A Raisin in the SunTo Be Young, Gifted and Black and a collection of interviews and speeches by Hansberry. I never would have found that without you! Thanks for the suggestions. ALL of these are on my TBR now. Gotta be informed.

          • Grab the Lapels August 15, 2017 at 1:47 pm

            If you want to ingest the play in a different way, the is a great film version starting Sidney Poitier that’s very famous. It’s a little different than the play, though.

            • Jackie B August 16, 2017 at 8:32 am

              Different in a way where I can switch them out and it’s okay? Will one make me cry harder than the other? I fully expect to cry reading/watching/listening to these.

              • Grab the Lapels August 16, 2017 at 11:23 am

                I don’t cry when I watch Raisin in the Sun because everyone has faults and everyone makes sense in their desires, too. I’m not sure about the audio recording. If it follows the play exactly, it may be a titch different from the film.

              • Jackie B August 18, 2017 at 10:03 am

                Haha. Fair enough– I am just such a crier! I’m like Kristen Bell “If I’m not between a 3 and a 7 on the emotional scale, I’m crying.” Bring it on. 😉

  • Evelina August 13, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    I heard this one was long(short?)-listed for one of the prizes (I… sound like I’m senile, don’t I? But I swear, my memory with these things is just like a sieve… You ask how I manage? I just forget, because if I had to keep it all in my head, it would explode, probably xD) Anyway. Some prize! So that’s pretty cool that you’ve read it. It sounds like one I would have liked to read as well. Maybe one day? It certainly seems like a topic I’ve been reading about lately.

    But I haven’t actually heard of this underground railroad as a thing. Sounds super magical if this is interpreted literally in the book.

    Your review makes me want to read it SOOOOOO much!

    • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 11:26 am

      The Underground Railroad won a TON of awards. It was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, which is what you’re thinking of. But it also won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Plus the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. So. It won a thing or two. Hence I picked it up!

      Oh man. Are you familiar with the concept of the underground railroad in general? It’s a HUGE part of most elementary American history curriculum. But yes, it is definitely literally interpreted in this book which makes it super cool.

      This is a challenging read, but it’s definitely worth it. Highly recommended!

  • theorangutanlibrarian August 13, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    Wow this sounds phenomenally powerful. I hadn’t heard of this book to be honest (but considering its endorsements I probably should have) I can see why it’s troubling to be pounded over the head with things, no matter the subject- I think that’s always a harder pill to swallow (makes me think of Lucretius saying it’s better to write philosophy in poetry so it’s not such a bitter pill- and I’m massively paraphrasing 😉 ) I do find that sort of thing jarring, but this sounds like it’s a really worthwhile read- great review!!

    • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 11:37 am

      It won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so it’s certainly a worthy read! That said, do you guys even remotely study the underground railroad in the UK? I bet there are tons of things in both our country’s histories which are really powerful and important but ignored across the ocean.

      You’re soooo correct about that massively paraphrased Lucretius quote; Melanie from GTL above points out that the subtlety of the message is often lost when written in book form (as opposed to shared in person, or in play/poetry). I think you’re both correct– I get it, but it’s quite jarring.

      • theorangutanlibrarian August 15, 2017 at 4:27 pm

        That’s good to know!! No, we don’t- we do study the slave trade, but I don’t recall this coming up- now I really feel like I need to know about it. Yes, that’s very true- I did a bit of American history- but very, very little. It’s much more British-centric and euro-centric over here. I’m trying to learn more about it now though.

        hehehe thank you!! Very true!!

  • Diana August 18, 2017 at 4:15 am

    I haven’t read this book though I have seen it around. I didn’t know that it has aspects of magical realism. Glad to see that you enjoyed it though despite the ‘lecture’ bit of it. It does sound like a good, informative though quite emotional read. Great review!

    • Jackie B August 21, 2017 at 8:51 am

      I wouldn’t say that it has magical realism in the traditional sense– but in the sense that we are reflecting on what life could have been like. It really feels magical as Cora explores the different cities of the US via a proper underground railroad. Thanks, Diana!

  • Sarah @ Reviews and Readathons August 28, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    I just finished this during Bout of Books. Your review was spot on. The atrocities covered were unrelenting and didn’t allow the reader to shy away at all. The discovery of each new place was what kept me reading–and learning more about Cora’s past near the end just made it all feel like it went full circle.

    • Jackie B August 29, 2017 at 11:09 am

      Thank you! That means a lot to me.

      And yes– I completely agree that it felt like we went full circle, too. It made the ending, as open as it is, still quite gratifying.

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