Book Reviews of The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
ISBN-13: 9780385542364
ISBN-10: 0385542364
Publication Date: 8/2/2016
Pages: 320
Rating:
  • Currently 3.7/5 Stars.
 57

3.7 stars, based on 57 ratings
Publisher: Doubleday
Book Type: Hardcover
Reviews: Amazon | Write a Review

13 Book Reviews submitted by our Members...sorted by voted most helpful

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Helpful Score: 4
This book was horribly sad, it tore my heart open repeatedly. I don't usually read books like this but it was chosen for a book club I wanted to attend. I couldn't even get through the first page without crying. I had to put it down to rest my heart. I never made it to that book club meeting.

I know it is fiction and one major detail was changed but that didn't take away from the story. I know that the majority of the book was close enough to the real thing and the terror that people endured was just as real. I have read about the horrible things that humans did to other humans because of the color of their skin and it is heart-rending. I wish it all could be considered fiction but the sad truth is that this horrible story was a reality for too many souls. There is language that I like to avoid but in this book, it is part of the reality.
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My favorite quote (among many) from this book: "The white men who wrote [the Declaration of Independence with its phrase 'all men created equal'] didn't understand it...if 'all men' did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom."
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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2017. This novel was not quite what I expected. It was an allegory using a real underground railroad (like a subway with real trains) as a metaphor for the real underground railroad which was of course "a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early-to-mid 19th century, and used by African-American slaves to escape into free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause." So why portray the railroad as an actual one? I read an interview Whitehead had with NPR. By using this device, he was able to put the protagonist, Cora, in "a different state of American possibility? So Georgia has one sort of take on America and North Carolina - sort of like "Gulliver's Travels." The book is rebooting every time the person goes to a different state."

The book uses actual events in a fictionalized manner to show the plight of slaves trying to escape from their brutal hardships on the plantation. Plantation life is shown in all its horrors with one disturbing scene after another. In one instance, the master invites friends over to drink tea and lemonade as they watch a slave who tried to escape be tortured and burned! When Cora makes it to North Carolina, she is hidden in an attic for weeks and is witness to weekly lynchings in the town square. According to Whitehead, "That section in North Carolina was inspired by one of the more better-known slave narratives, Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl." And she was in North Carolina and fled her abusive master, who had sexual designs upon her, and hid seven years in an attic until she could be - get passage out of town. So Cora is trapped in an attic that overlooks the town park, and every Friday, there's a happy lynching festival where they execute the latest - the latest black person who's been caught up in their program of genocide." Then in South Carolina, Cora feels that she had found safe haven only to find out that the community built a hospital to experiment on blacks as a way to study syphilis and to try to sterilize them to control their population.

Overall, I thought this one was well worth reading but don't take it literally. It's more of an alternative history which uses real events to show the plight of the African American during the pre-civil war period and to show circumstances and prejudices that are still present in today's society.
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True confession: when I was a little kid, and heard about something called the "underground railroad," taking slaves to freedom, I thought it was a real railroad. Underground. Hardly surprising, when I lived in a city where a (largely) underground railroad connected the far-flung corners of four of the city's five boroughs. So, in a childlike way, I was a little disappointed when I learned that the "railroad" part was a metaphor. In a move that readers will either love or hate, Colson Whitehead reverses the trajectory of that metaphor, and equips his story of one woman's escape from the horrors of slavery in the deepest South with a genuine underground railroad, complete with stations and stationmasters, platforms, cabooses and engineers. The question you have to ask, before you decide whether you love it or hate it, is why he does this, and what (if anything) it adds to a story you may think you are familiar with from many, many re-tellings.

Personally, I think the new metaphor works brilliantly, on several levels. The railroad conceit keeps the focus on Cora, rather than turning it into the story of the Good People who are rescuing her. This is not a history of the Underground Railroad, and Whitehead's re-engineering of the metaphor doesn't change anything, or diminish the courage of those who were involved, or the odds against them. But historically, the role of the runaway slaves in stories of the Underground Railroad could turn into non-speaking parts: they are silent sufferers whose role is to be rescued. Whitehead uses the railroad to ensure that doesn't happen to Cora, and at the same time makes the white participants both more complicated and more human.

In addition, like the transporter on "Star Trek," the metaphor of the railroad eliminates the need for a lot of narrative filler ("... and then she hid under a blanket/in a hayloft/in an attic ...â) and allows Whitehead to move Cora along quite briskly, taking her from one fictionalized version of slave-owning America to another.

Because that's what the story is really about: as she embarks on her journey, Cora is told, âLook outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of Americaâ (a line Whitehead has her repeat, at least twice, in case you didn't get it the first time). Whitehead presents us with three fictionalized versions (four, including the nightmare that is the Georgia plantation that Cora escapes from) of the history of race relations in America. âSouth Carolina,â where the plantation system has been replaced by a form of slavery-by-stealth: a lifetime of debt, low-wage servitude and eugenics, all presented as if someone were doing the runaways a big favor. âNorth Carolina,â where it has been made it a crime, punishable by death, to be black, and the slave population has been replaced with indentured servants enlisted from desperate hordes of European immigrants. And Indiana, a seeming idyll of abolitionist sentiment and color-blind good will to all, which is (Spoiler? Or perhaps you can see this coming?) too good to last.

The âAmericaâ that Cora see as she rides the rails is a clever mash-up of real history (the Tuskegee experiment, in which subjects offered free health care were infected with syphilis; programs to ârepatriateâ freed slaves to Africa; the shameful legacy of Reconstruction, which left ex-slaves so in debt to their former masters that they might has well still be enslaved) and Whitehead uses the âwhat ifâ to excellent purpose. His novel becomes much more than just an escape adventure, but a powerful journey through the role of race in American history.

And beautifully written. (I was not surprised by this, as Whitehead's âZone Oneâ is one of the best zombie novels I have read.) The voice of Cora, and the account of what she goes through, who she meets, and what she sees, is one you won't get out of your head for a long, long time.
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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tells the story of Cora and her life as a slave. Cora is a slave in Georgia. Cora is the daughter of Mabel and the granddaughter of Ajarry. After Cora's mother escaped, Cora was alone. Cora is treated horribly by the other slaves. She gets thrown out of the where she was living with her mother and is forced to move into the Hob (a house for the slave outcasts). One day Cora is approached by Caesar. Caesar is a new to the plantation. His previous owner was a kind woman who taught him to read. She had promised Caesar his freedom upon her death, but she did not keep her promise. Caesar tells Cora about the Underground Railroad. The two of them form a plan and one day they take off. Unfortunately, things do not go quite as planned. Lovey, a fellow slave, follows them (she had been watching them). They are going through the swamps to make capture more difficult, but they did not anticipate hog hunters. The hunters realize they are runaway slaves and attempt to capture them. One of the hunters (just a boy really) ends up dead from a rock. Cora is now wanted for murder. Lovey ends up getting captured. Cora and Caesar quickly make their way to the first stop for them on the Underground Railroad. They are in for quite a journey. Some of the stops will be quick and others will be quite lengthy. Will they ever be completely free or will they continue to be hunted (especially Cora)? Ridgeway is a slave hunter who has something to prove. Ridgeway was given the task of finding Cora's mother, Mabel. He was never able to capture her. Ridgeway is very determined to return Cora to her owner. To find out what happens to Cora and Caesar, you will have to read The Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad is a very dark novel. The majority of the novel focuses on Cora (poor Caesar). I found the writing to be awkward and difficult to read (I just did not like the author's writing style). The book lacks flow. First we are with Cora, then it jumps to someone else, then back to Cora, and then to another character. It will also go back in time to tell you the backstory of the latest character (when Cora meets someone new on the Underground Railroad). It makes it hard to read and to get into the story. I was able to finish the book, but I did not like it or enjoy it (sorry). You need to be aware that The Underground Railroad contains very graphic violence. Some of the violence is very disturbing and upsetting. I give The Underground Railroad 2 out of 5 stars. I did like Colson Whitehead's take on the Underground Railroad. He had tunnels running all over the United States and actual trains. I was curious, though, how people above ground did not hear the loud engines of the trains. Mr. Whitehead did capture the time and place quite accurately. The ending was extremely dissatisfying.
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My favorite quote (among many) from this book: "The white men who wrote [the Declaration of Independence with its phrase 'all men created equal'] didn't understand it...if 'all men' did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom."
reviewed The Underground Railroad on + 252 more book reviews
My favorite quote (among many) from this book: "The white men who wrote [the Declaration of Independence with its phrase 'all men created equal'] didn't understand it...if 'all men' did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom."
reviewed The Underground Railroad on + 277 more book reviews
Such vital history in this novel. It is so hard to believe that we actually treated individuals with such disdain, all because of the color of their skin. The language is hard to get into, as Colson Whitehead uses the lingo that was probably actually used. Once you get past that and get into the characters and the history, it is an important read.
reviewed The Underground Railroad on + 252 more book reviews
My favorite quote (among many) from this book: "The white men who wrote [the Declaration of Independence with its phrase 'all men created equal'] didn't understand it...if 'all men' did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom."
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This book details the sad history of slavery and systemic racism in the 1800's that took the lives of so many innocent Africans who were torn from their culture and families so that plantation owners could have free labor that they abused mercilessly. But, keep in mind, this is historical fiction. While I am sure that the brutality was nothing but real, Colson Whitehead did choose to take creative liberty with the story. I just found his style to be difficult to read, and I kept turning back a page or two because I felt like I missed something. I have read many books about this time period, but I just felt like there was no consistent flow to the story.
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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead recounts a history that needs to be remembered so that it may never be repeated and so that the impacts that are felt to this day can be addressed. The history alone makes this book worth reading. This history itself is so compelling that it needs no embellishment especially not one so completely unbelievable as an actual, physical underground railroad. The embellishment to diminishes the history, and I am left wondering why.

Read my complete review at http://www.memoriesfrombooks.com/2018/01/the-underground-railroad.html
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This is the story of Cora a slave on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Cora's mother had abandon her and escaped when Cora was 10, leaving Cora as a stray, with no one but herself to look after her. The Randall plantation is a cotton farm and although it starts off as a bad place to be it becomes a nightmare. Slaves are beaten and raped. After one failed escape attempt a man is horribly toured and then lit on firefor amusement, while the plantation owner and his guest look ok, making a dinner party out of it. One day, Cora is approached by another slave named Caesar. He is planning an escape and wants her to come with him, as his good luck charm. At first she says no, but after her situation becomes much worse, she agrees and follows Casear into the night to begin her journey, perhaps to freedom, perhaps to death. Either way, Cora made her first free choice, to travel on the Underground Railroad.

There are both amazing things and bleh things in this book. Let me start with the amazing. Their is no whitewash on the story of how blacks were treated in the early 1800s. Blacks in the North might of had it easier, but life was limited even for them. Whitehead goes into all of the horrible nightmares inflicted on this race and how whites justified this behavior. I liked that he did not sugar coat it. He also explained how the slaves often turned on each other, either to get favor with their master or just for spite and fear. When you are oppressed and told you are nothing from your first breath, you will do anything to feel like someone special, if only for a moment.

I also liked that the book questioned if a slave could ever be free. Were the still chained by their past, long after their shackles had been removed? Could a black freeman ever truly understand the slave, and vice verse? The Underground Railroad asked a lot of questions for the reader to ponder. It was definitely a book that made you think.

Now the stuff I wasn't crazy about. I guess I did not get attached to any of the characters, including Cora. Maybe it would have been a better book written in first person. As it was written, everything that happened didn't really touch me. It was almost to history book like in parts. Besides Clara none of the other characters are even fully realized. When we do get back stories about them, it is in a separate chapter, after that character has left the story. By then it is too late. There are chapters from other POV's spread through the the sections and they could have just been removed. The only one that was of interest came at the end of the book.

Now to the elephant in the room, the transformation of The Underground Railroad into an actual railroad, with real trains and conductors. I don't understand. Why is it a real railroad? It didn't add anything to the story. In fact, it cut out the perilous journey that these runaway slaves made trying to get to freedom. Was it suppose represent something other than the obvious? I don't know. I couldn't figure it out. Every time she boarded a train, my mind went to that scene in the Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The scene were they take the weird boat in the LSD tunnel. That scene never made sense to me either. Maybe they both meant something deep and I am to shallow to grasp the meaning.

I am not sure if I would recommend this book or not. It is going to stay with me for awhile, the horrors of the past brought clearly to my mind. But I don't think Cora's story will stay with me at all. I think it is more of a well told history lesson with a story thrown in.
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While this is a factual account of slavery in this country, it is a very disturbing book. I forced myself to read 40 pages, but could not finish it.