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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

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Strong imagery and a deep emotional exploration of a young woman seeking freedom come together in this gut-wrenching story. The prose is lush and deeply immersive. ( )
  RossWhippo | Jun 26, 2017 |

I found it fascinating - a combination of 19th-century slavery narratives (of which I have read a few) with steampunk; the "underground railroad" of the title is a literal subterranean rail transport system which the protagonists use to try and keep a step ahead of the vindictive slave-catcher Ridgeway. I am surprised I haven't read more about this in my usual sources. ( )
  nwhyte | Jun 25, 2017 |
[The Underground Railroad] begins as a fairly commonplace slavery tale, of Africans kidnapped, dragged in chains to a seaport, forced onto a ship, transported across the Atlantic, and sold into slavery. The slaves are worked long hours in harsh conditions and routinely abused. All the typical slave thinks about is escape. In this telling, Ajarry is snatched from Africa, ending up on a Georgia plantation. She has a daughter, Mabel, who screws up her courage and simply runs away, leaving behind her own daughter, Cora. On her own, a runaway, Mabel vanishes.

A decade later, perhaps, Cora agrees to accompany a slave new to the plantation, Caesar, in escaping. She's become an outcast from the other slaves, as well as a special target of the psychopathic plantation owner and his foreman. She hates her mother for abandoning her, yet she opts at last to follow her. Caesar has an open-ended ticket on the underground railroad. And here the story departs from the commonplace.

In this story, the underground railroad is not a network of sympathetic, brave souls who lead escapees through woodlands and open fields, skirting settlements, hiding them in attics or basements, along the road to the North and freedom. Here Whitehead adopts a steampunk motif; his underground railroad is an actual subway: miles and miles and miles of a single track extending more or less northward, bedded in a dark tunnel. Stationmasters guide runaways through concealed trapdoors into subterranean stations, where a dilapidated locomotive, towing a single freight car, stops for them. The routes aren't interconnected; most tunnels are isolated from each other, so a fugitive rides out of sight to wherever the tunnel leads.

Having thus departed from the literal world of 1850 (or thereabouts), Whitehead found himself free to introduce alternate takes on southern societies. In his imagining, several states adopt different ways of coping with the fact that blacks vastly outnumber whites (and a black uprising is a bedrock fear). That first rail trip takes Cora and Caesar to South Carolina, where they are welcomed and given shelter, meals, health care, training, and work in state-run facilities. There's a dark side to this arrangement, which puts Cora on the run once again.

[The Underground Railroad] is well-constructed, obviously imaginative, with parallels in contemporary America. The novel won both the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award. I give it both upraised thumbs.
1 vote weird_O | Jun 19, 2017 |

This is an exceptionally fine novel.

It hooked me from the start. It’s a beautifully and brilliantly crafted and engrossing story. It’s a great story.

I thought that I knew a fair amount about The Underground Railroad and slavery in the U.S., but I learned so much. As I read and now that I’m finished I felt and feel inspired to do more research and read more books, especially non-fiction books.

If all I’d known about humans in history hadn’t already left me depressed and despairing, and angry, this story contributed to feeling those things. I’d already been particularly despondent and ashamed of the U.S. these last over 7 months, and for 50 years of knowledge also felt appalled about how this country was built on the genocide of the Native Peoples and of slave labor. The details of slavery have been a too gradual horrific awakening for me, with this book adding more almost unendurable and excruciatingly detailed information about what people experienced. Horrific. Brutal. Powerfully told. This book was an eye-opener for me. Even though there are many “good people” in this book it didn’t leave me feeling that optimistic in general about humanity.

I did feel wiped out at times and this book was not the most ideal bedtime reading, but it’s a page-turner and I found it difficult to put down more often than not. I did have a few nightmares due to reading this book.

Despite all the above, I loved the book anyway. It was on my to read list and one I really wanted to read, so I’m grateful to a book club member for suggesting it, and it’s my book club’s July book. I’m so grateful to have read it.

The storytelling is superb. I noticed at some point to not rely on the chapter titles to predict what would happen in those chapters. I understood why Cora felt about Mabel as she did and completely understood her opinions about slave owners and slave hunters. Cora’s feelings and actions all the way through made sense to me, even though at times I was screaming for her to make different choices. The “N word” is used but even more distressing than that is when the slave hunter uses the word “it” instead of she or he. I did guess the mystery surrounding Mabel, though not the specific details. People as property was shown so vividly, and there aren’t adequate words to describe the wrongness of that. I loved the entire story arc. There is a lot of suspense throughout. Thankfully, there is some humor and many parts showing the better side of human nature. By the end I was happy to learn additional facts about some of the central characters, and I felt fine with what is left open to the readers’ imaginations about what will happen in the future for one particular character.

5 full stars! ( )
  Lisa2013 | Jun 14, 2017 |
Colson Whitehead's powerful novel about escaping slavery won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for 2016, and Whitehead deserves both for this tour de force examination into America's original sin.

The book's main character is Cora, a slave who thinks too much and keeps demanding what she feels is hers. This leads to punishment - not only from her white masters, but also from other slaves on the plantation. Gradually she becomes an outcast from both blacks and whites. So when newly arrived Caesar tells her about the Underground Railroad, she decides to make a leap of faith and run away with him.,

In this iteration, the Underground railroad is an actual railroad with tracks and stations all running underground through the south and towards freedom in the north. Of course, nothing goes as planned. In an early altercation, Cora kills a young white bot which means she will be permanently hunted. They stop at a city in South Carolina that seems like a haven. But that is just an illusion. Cora learns that there is no such thing as a white person she can trust, and worse still, Ridgeway, the relentless slave catvher, is never far off their track. Even when, after many, many setbacks she reaches the north, Cora learns that the dream of a welcoming paradise over the Ohio River is just an illusion. The miraculous thing is that Cora refuses to break. She fights on and, in the end, finds a new vein of strength running through herself as she moves forward into the future.

Whitehead shows the institution of slavery in all it's horrors and also offers a powerful allegory on the history we all share as Americans. ( )
  etxgardener | Jun 14, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 120 (next | show all)
In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.

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