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The Underground Railroad

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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 planned--Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. 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. And 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.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver's Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey--hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. 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.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published August 2, 2016

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About the author

Colson Whitehead

33 books15.9k followers

COLSON WHITEHEAD is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of fiction and nonfiction, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.

Harlem Shuffle is the first book in The Harlem Trilogy. The second, Crook Manifesto, will be published in 2023.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 31,008 reviews
Profile Image for Felice Laverne.
Author 1 book3,226 followers
February 12, 2020
3.5 stars

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

I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with The Intuitionist, 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 Zone One soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.

The Underground Railroad 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 justice 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 very 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 entire 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 The Intuitionist as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse, thou art an allusive thing! 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 description 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 truly 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, any 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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Profile Image for Rick Riordan.
Author 256 books408k followers
December 14, 2021
I loved Colson Whitehead's take on the zombie apocalypse, Zone One, so I wanted to see what he did with this novel, a sort of alternate history of pre-Civil War America in which the Underground Railroad, a loosely organized system which tried to help enslaved Blacks reach free states, was a *literal* railroad underground.

The power of the book is that the realities of slavery are interwoven so well with believable fictions, that even a reader like me, who knows a fair amount of history, finds it difficult to distinguish where history stops and fantasy begins. Every child in school, upon first hearing the term 'Underground Railroad,' probably pictures exactly what Whitehead has written: an actual system of trains running through secret tunnels from the South to the North. I know I did when I was in second grade. To see that idea brought to life is fascinating and surprisingly credible. When our protagonist Cora first sees one of the tunnels and asked who built it, her station master replies, "Who builds anything in America?" Black laborers, of course. The answer seems so obvious that I found it easy to believe in this impossible railway, with trains traveling thousands of miles underground, delivering their fugitive passengers to new stations that may (or may not) be safer. By the end of the book, it becomes clear that the blending of fantasy and history is one central message of the book: Which is more difficult to believe -- that the institution of slavery was built on so much horror and moral rot (true and well-documented) or that North Carolina banned the presence of all Blacks of its own accord before the Civil War in order to prevent uprisings? (totally untrue, but entirely plausible.) Fantasy is no stranger or more sinister than what actually happened in this country, an idea summed up nicely toward the end of the book, when the orator Landers talks about America as a shared delusion. It should not exist. And yet here we are.

As for the plot: our protagonist Cora was born on a Georgia plantation and abandoned as a child by her mother, who was the only person ever to successfully escape the Randall family. When a new arrival named Caesar confides in Cora that he is planning to escape, and wants to take Cora as a 'good luck charm,' Cora initially refuses. Then conditions on the plantation turn even more horrible, and she takes the chance of riding on the Underground Railroad.

We follow Cora's journeys from station to station, state to state, as she searches for freedom and also the fate of her vanished mother, all while being pursued by the vile but wonderfully three-dimensional slave catcher Ridgeway, Cora's personal nemesis. Each state offers new promises and new terrors -- some overt, some hidden -- which challenge Cora to determine when 'safe' is safe enough for a fugitive enslaved Black. Strangely, the book reminded me of Watership Down, in that it is a perilous journey to find a home, with many dangerous false sanctuaries along the way. It was not an easy book to read, but beautifully written, thought-provoking and compelling.
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,990 reviews298k followers
August 22, 2020
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 emotion. It's a cold, distant, impersonal novel and it didn't pull me in.

All of the secondary characters are undeveloped and forgettable, 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. 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 monstrous things, but the impersonal nature of the narrative kept me at a distance. It was horrific, as the truth of U.S. history often is, but in the way a history textbook is horrific. 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. With no emotional connection to the characters and little opportunity to become connected to the plot, I felt like this book, for me, remained one full of clever ideas and little else.

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Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 120 books159k followers
August 15, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,438 followers
July 24, 2016
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 actual 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.
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,983 followers
September 6, 2017
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 All the Light We Cannot See – 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 The Help, Between Shades of Gray, The Power of One, 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.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
May 20, 2021
What a world, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close, but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand. - Colson Whitehead
People get ready, there’s a train a-coming - Curtis Mayfield
In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Underground Railroad, he takes a figurative term and gives it a literal application. This Underground Railroad posits a literal brick, steel, and steam system that transports fleeing slaves from southern captivity to what is hoped to be a form of freedom. This RR has actual station agents and train conductors. Most importantly, it has passengers.

Image from Whitehead’s Twitter feed

Our guide through this underworld is Cora, 17 when we meet her, a slave on the Randalls’ property, in Georgia. Encouraged to flee with him by fellow slave, Caesar, she demurs, fearing failure and dire circumstances. But when her situation at the property becomes too damaging to endure, she signs on.

Throughout the tale, we get bits of backstory. We learn of Cora’s mother, a slave who had fled when Cora was 11, never to be seen or heard from again. We learn some details of slave life. That brutality was a central feature will come as no surprise to anyone, but some of the specifics of such an existence will be news to many of us.

The book had a particularly long gestation.
I had the idea for the book about 16 years ago, recalling how when I was a kid, I thought the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad and when I found out it wasn’t, I was disappointed. So I thought it was a cool idea, and then I thought, “Well, what if it actually was a real railroad? That seems like a cool premise for a book.”  But I had just finished up a research-heavy project and wasn’t up for that kind of ordeal again, and I didn’t feel mature enough or up to the task. But every couple of years, when I was between books, I would pull out my notes and ask myself if I was ready. And inevitably I would realize that I wasn’t really up for it. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I really committed to the idea. - from the Bookpage interview
There is much here that hearkens back to literary classics. Cora might certainly feel a kinship with Jean Valjean of Les Miserables, escaping a wretched life, but pursued by a relentless, Javert-like slave catcher, Arnold Ridgeway. Ridgeway had been enraged for years that he’d failed to find and bring back Cora’s mother, Mabel, who had fled six years earlier. One might also think of stories like Gulliver’s Travels, in which each stop along the journey points out another form of madness.

Colson Whitehead - image from the NY Times

The route takes Cora from Georgia to what seems a relatively benign South Carolina, then on to North Carolina for some new forms of horror, and finally on to Indiana, which offers its own forms of misery. Whitehead is not shy about part of his plan. I thought, why not write a book that really scares you?

Whitehead was more interested in communicating the internal rather than external historical reality.
The first chapter in Georgia I tried to make realistic and stick to the historical record, and then after that, I wanted to stick to the truth of the black experience but not necessarily the facts. As we go to South Carolina and Indiana and the different states that Cora goes to, I am playing with history and time, moving things up to talk about the Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and the eugenics movement. So in some sense, it’s not really a historical novel at all because I’m moving things around. - from the Bookpage interview
Whitehead peppers Cora’s story with bizarre events, like regular public lynchings in one town, an early and bitingly grim version of public entertainment, reminiscent of feeding Christians to lions for the delight of the townspeople. A living history museum in which Cora plays the part of slaves through history in diverse tableaux makes your spidey senses wonder what might result.

Thuso Mbed as Cora in the film - image from IMDB

Whitehead took his inspiration from diverse sources. Cora spend a protracted time in an attic, terrified of being discovered, and with good reason, as public lynchings are regularly held right across the street in a public park. The inspiration for that was Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which Harriet hid for years in a crawl space, terrified of being captured.
Primarily I read slave narratives. There are a few histories of the Underground Railroad; one of the first ones I read, which proved the most useful was Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich. That gave me an overview of the railroad, but the main thing was just reading the words of former slaves themselves. - from the Bookpage interview
It would be a challenge to remain unmoved by Cora’s journey, and impossible to come away from reading this book without learning some things about the slave experience and the conditions that people treated as property endured.

One may take issue with decisions made by this or that person in the story, but it is worth suspending a bit of disbelief to appreciate the journey on which Whitehead leads us. No one will force you to read The Underground Railroad, but choosing to do so would be an excellent expression of your freedom.

Review first posted – June 20, 2017

Publication date – August 2, 2016

The mini-series was released on Prime in May 2021

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

August 2, 2016 – NY Times - Colson Whitehead on Slavery, Success and Writing the Novel That Really Scared Him
- by Jennifer Schuessler

-----Oprah’s interview with CW requires tolerating it having been broken down into very small chunks, each with a 15 second ad that repeats for each section, which is scream-inducing
----- Oprah, American history and the power of a female protagonist - Bookpage.com – by Stephanie Harrison

-----Follow the Drinking Gourd
-----Go Down Moses
-----The Gospel Train
----- People Get Ready
-----Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
-----Wade in the Water
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews588 followers
October 27, 2019
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!
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,100 reviews7,190 followers
April 27, 2017
A good read and Pulitzer Prize winner, with so many reviews already, I’ll make this brief.

The main character is a young woman slave who hates her missing mother for having escaped when she was a child. A young man plans to escape from the Georgia plantation and invites her to go with him, partly because he thinks she’s “good luck” because of her mother’s escape. The main story becomes one of a cat and mouse game with a brutal slave hunter on their tail. There is a “real” underground railroad running in tunnels.


While on the run and at times masquerading as a freewoman, she has a variety of experiences designed to give us a view into slave life at the time (say the early 1800’s). After her early life picking cotton and the escape, she works with forged papers as a maid to white folks in Charleston; as an African at a “living exhibit” at a good-intentioned museum; and she hides in an attic for months. As a female slave she has it worse than a man because she is constantly vulnerable to sexual abuse from whites and blacks as she makes her way from Georgia to both Carolinas, Tennessee and eventually Indiana.

The story portrays the catalog of abuses that blacks were vulnerable to – all the daily abuses and even the killings of slaves. But it’s not just the story of brutal work and evil slave masters, but the hunting down of freed slaves; the lies of masters who promised freedom and then reneged; the duplicity of white doctors performing eugenic experiments on unknowing blacks; the constant worry about broken families – and not just parents worrying about the fate of children stolen from them, but children worrying about the whereabouts and fate of parents now getting elderly. There is even an attack by whites on a free black settlement in the North.

I think this is a great addition to the collection of books about American slavery, especially for young people, who have not read, and probably never will read, old classics such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,308 reviews2,192 followers
August 18, 2016
3.5 stars rounded up.

This is a difficult book to read with the horrific treatment and gruesome punishments of African American slaves so much a part of the narrative, but it is essential that we read this and other books like it . We need these powerful, compelling and gut wrenching reminders of what life was like on a plantation in Georgia and other places in the South and what it might have been like to be a runaway. This story is told mainly from the perspective of a young slave woman named Cora and the portrayal of her escape and journey toward freedom. I was also moved by the story of Cora's grandmother Ajarry, captured in Africa and transported to America. Cora's mother Mabel also has her story.

Colson Whitehead imagines the The Underground Railroad as if it were an actual railroad with trains and conductors. While this work is a fictional representation of the time and place and does an excellent job of conveying the time and place and what seems like a genuine feeling of what it was like to be Cora, I have to admit I had some reservations about making it a real railroad. I felt like the creation of an actual railroad in a way diminishes the the true Underground Railroad whose strength was the people moving people to freedom not a railway but a network of routes and a group of people who didn't have a railroad to move them around . I'm sure there will be much discussion of this and I may be an outlier here.

So for this and the fact that I found it a little slow going and just had too many characters, I would rate this 3.5 stars if half stars were allowed . But overall , this is just such an important book that I have to round it up to 4 stars . Cora's story is one that we mustn't forget because she represents so many of the real life slaves who we have to remember.

Thanks to Doubleday and Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,631 followers
August 18, 2019
The Underground Railroad is an intense ride. I had not taken "railroad" to be a literal thing before reading the book. Like Cora, the protagonist, I thought it was just an informal way of smuggling escaped slaves up north. Now, I am curious to visit some of the stations should they still exist.
The book itself is one of courage, brutality, and hope. It is a condemnation of the despicable crime against humanity that was slavery (and I have ancestors that were guilty of that unforgivable iniquity) with vivid, terrifying depictions of the violence that kept the institution going. It was also sad to see that the white hate of black skin went as far north as Indiana - but then, no, is was unsurprising at the same time. It made me reflect on the current rehabilitation of racism in Drumpf's America and how little so much of the white population has really learned from this shameful past.

I am not sure that this book is on the level of other Pulitzers: despite the vivid characters and fast-paced action, I felt the pace was uneven and the descriptions a little lacking. Nonetheless, it was an important read and a moving one. I just wonder if we will ever have an accounting of the number of horrible deaths that transpired, the number that got away like Cora, and the ones that didn't.
Profile Image for Justin.
284 reviews2,299 followers
February 22, 2017
I'm a guy who enjoys "best of" lists. One of my favorite things about December, besides my birthday, Christmas, football, colder weather, and hot chocolate, is sitting down to peruse lists of the best stuff of the year. Books, movies, albums, video games, etc. I love it. I have trusted sources that I rely on to provide my with the best of the best, and when I start to see the same stuff appear on very list, I drop everything and consume it.

Like right now I'm watching The Americans because Season 4 was consistently ranked as one of the best shows on TV last year. I watched La La Land and Manchester by the Sea because they were the two two movies on almost every list out there for 2016. Beyoncé's Lemonade album is awesome, too. And The new stuff from Radiohead.

But my fascination with lists doesn't necessarily mean I'm always consuming the best media in the entire world because it's so universally critically acclaimed. Sometimes a movie is just awful no matter what the experts say. Sometimes an album just doesn't do it for me no matter how many times I try to listen to it. And sometimes a book just doesn't win me over like it does others. That's all really great though. It's awesome. It's what makes us human and different and all that. We get to have different opinions and stuff can resonate with us in ways that others will never comprehend. It's beautiful.

The Underground Railroad just didn't do it for me. It was a tough book to read for many reasons. I mean the subject matter is just awful anyway. The fact that people were ever treated that way is disgusting and hard for me to even comprehend. The depictions in the book of cruelty were difficult to read since they were fiction rooted in real events. The concept of a real Underground Railroad was interesting, too, and put a unique spin on historical events.

I just didn't think it was written very well. I didn't think the characters were developed at all so I found myself completely unattached from them. I didn't even realize one of them was out of the picture until they were brought up later in the book. I just didn't connect. I feel like the events that unfolded would have impacted me more if the characters weren't so underdeveloped. It just seemed like there were a lot of things happening, but I wasn't invested from the beginning and couldn't find my way in as I went along.

So I was let down by what many consider the best book of 2016. That's OK. There's a million other books to get wrapped up, and many other books that I think deal with this time in history in a more meaningful way. I'm glad I read it though. It did provide me with a harsh reminder of a dark time in our country's history that is often easy to just shy away from or ignore. It was helpful, and I wanted to rate it higher, but I'm good with two stars.

Profile Image for Always Pouting.
575 reviews761 followers
February 19, 2022
Cora is a slave on a plantation in Georgia where conditions are especially rough because of the cotton industry. When she was younger her mother left her alone on the plantation and escaped, leaving Cora to fend for herself. Cora eventually becomes an outcast but when a new slave arrives on the plantation, Caesar, he approaches her and asks her to run away from him. The two set out to evade the bounty hunters and restart their lives this time as free people. I really enjoyed a lot of things about this book, especially the writing and Cora. There were just a few things that kept me from feeling like it was amazing though. First the whole thing about the railroad being an actual underground railroad felt unnecessary, maybe I'm just not smart enough to pick up whatever allusion was being made. It kind of made me confused for a second and I started doubting my whole life because I went wait I thought the underground railroad was a metaphor and I had to double check to make sure I wasn't missing something. Also I really didn't care very much about a lot of the back stories especially the one for the bounty hunter, the whole time I kept wishing he would just go away and die already but maybe that was the point, I don't think he's meant to be likable. The last thing was . None of those things were really big enough to take away from the over all enjoyment of the book though. It was really well written and talks about topics that are pretty hard to stomach but these are things we should acknowledge.
Profile Image for Lori Elliott (catching up).
745 reviews1,791 followers
September 1, 2016
I struggled through this... several times thinking of giving up. As a story revolving around such a 'heavy' subject the focus needed to be on a character less one dimensional and just a little bit likable. Cora was not a character that made me feel anything... there was no depth to her. Also, I disliked the whole idea of the Underground Railroad being an actual physical railroad which made no sense to me. Almost made it somewhat cartoonish. It would've been somewhat redeemable if there had been an Authors Note explaining reasons for the choices he made. I had really high expectations for this the minute I saw it on Netgalley, but it really didn't work for me. Hugely, disappointing. Sadly, only 2 stars and that is being generous.
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
701 reviews3,351 followers
January 10, 2018
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

Cora is a slave at a Georgia plantation in the antebellum South. When a fellow slave tells her about the Underground Railroad, she finds the courage to run for her freedom. Thus begins her odyssey as a runaway slave, where her adventures introduce her to unprecedented horrors and lead her to disheartening realizations.

The Underground Railroad rekindles the discussion and study of slavery. The harsh realities of those dark chapters in American history are presented with brute bluntness but remain eloquent in their presentation. It makes for a strange but savory contrast, to read about something so dreadful yet have it conferred with such sophistication:

The noxious air of the hold, the gloom of confinement, and the screams of those shackled to her contrived to drive [her] to madness. Because of her tender age, her captors did not immediately force their urges on her, but eventually some of the more seasoned mates dragged her from the hold six weeks into the passage.

Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always - the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.

Peppered throughout the book are short, engrossing chapters highlighting secondary or even tertiary characters, but the main point of focus is Cora, a sympathetic character if ever there was one. Cora only knows one life, and it is rife with degradation, abuse, and sorrow.

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

Every step of her journey forces Cora to question whether or not she is still chattel. Freedom - in the purest, truest sense of the word - seems to always remain just beyond her reach.

What a world this is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your haven. [. . .] Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had.

The author chose his timeline well and integrates other interesting and sickening moments in American history. In addition to slavery, The Underground Railroad touches on the surreptitiously induced sterilization of blacks; the secret studies of syphilis, conducted by white doctors on black patients without their knowledge; and the rise in the practice of autopsy and the subsequent need for corpses, which led to grave robbing and the irreverent disposal of deceased black peoples' bodies for scientific study.

The writing is superb throughout. Carefully selected word choices lend themselves to having harsh and long-standing impact on readers.

The stone vault above was white with splashes of red, like blood from a whipping that soaked through a shirt.

He wrung out every possible dollar. When black blood was money, the savvy business man knew to open every vein.

At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capitol, profit made flesh.

This book is an accessible read, breezy for the ease of its writing by weighty for the depth of its subject matter. It's no wonder The Underground Railroad won the 2016 National Book Award for fiction.
Profile Image for emma.
1,866 reviews54.3k followers
January 18, 2023
I can't believe it's only been a month since I read this book.

Not only because a one-month review time turnaround is actually very good for me, but because it feels like this book changes your way of thinking.

Or maybe not quite - maybe like it opens your eyes to different perceptions, that it reframes and reworks in a logic so obvious afterward it casts its light on everything, not just the time since you finished.

We all talk a lot about the pitfalls of American education - Abraham Lincoln being an awesome guy who was so antiracist that he dedicated his life to breaking apart the systems that held bigotry up (instead of a guy who was also racist and just kind of politically ended up having to half-heartedly and -assedly do so); Christopher Columbus the adventurer and explorer (who was not an idiot who was bad at his job but very good at raping and pillaging); most pertinently here, the glossing over of slavery.

This book reframes the metaphorical into the literal, taking the underground railroad we know (because the American education system does give Harriet Tubman her due) and transmogrifying it into the subway we know better. And in the same way, it turns so much of what we've learned or thought we did on its head. From the 19th century to the current, just like the railroad.

It's just f*cking brilliant. It's so good that I know I'm the millionth person to say so, and yet look how long-winded I still was.

Bottom line: Just as fantastic as everyone said. Maybe better.


it's nothing that barack obama and oprah and the pulitzer committee haven't said before, but...

this book is very good.

review to come / 4 stars

tbr review

author so nice he won the Pulitzer twice
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,219 followers
September 20, 2017
It must be hard for a writer to create an uneducated character. It’s not really something you can research. Toni Morrison has set the benchmark, an almost impossibly high benchmark. Of late Marilyn Robinson did a good job with Lila. Whitehead evades this challenge principally by giving his central character Cora little if any inner life. Therefore this is a novel principally of surface realities. It’s a narrative of the eye more than the heart. What this means is I never felt I got to know Cora. She was eluding me as energetically as she was trying to elude all her other pursuers. Maybe that was clever on Whitehead’s part; an ingenious irony. Because Cora never stays with anyone for long she never has a faithful sounding board or foil which enables her to dramatise her inner life. She remains very cinematic, an image rather than a sensibility.

There’s something fundamentally unthinkable about the brutal inhumanity of slavery. It beggars belief that educated human beings could treat other human beings with such perverted humiliating abuse. In that respect it’s an historical event that has parallels with the Holocaust. The Holocaust is often used by writers nowadays as the winning template for a thrilling and moving story. In other words the unspeakable, the inconceivable are reduced to everyday terms of reference we all recognise - essentially the good guys running from the bad guys. There is an element of that here too. We get to feel good about ourselves for cheering on Cora and booing the plantation bosses and slave catchers. The Punch and Judy principle of storytelling. For me the success of Twelve Years a Slave was it never strained to entertain. The Underground Railway does try to entertain and the outcome for me was that it was less moving as a result. It’s well written, well plotted and has some memorable visuals but I can’t say anything about it excited me as a novel with all the plaudits this has received surely should have done.
Somewhere between 3 and 4 stars.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,851 followers
October 22, 2016
"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," stated First Lady Michelle Obama at this year's Democratic National Convention. Her words seemed to come as a surprise to many, those who had either forgotten or had never known that black hands enslaved by white masters built the iconic edifice of our democracy.

As we come to the end of an extraordinary eight years of the nation's first President of color while witnessing the continued systemic racism that pervades every corner of our collective American culture, as we engage in open, honest dialogue about white privilege, how black lives matter, and denounce the wretched anti-immigrant language spewed by politicians and political candidates, we must also acknowledge and work to overcome the continued ignorance of our nation's darkest and ugliest history- a history that has led us inexorably to the painful circumstance of contemporary racism.

In his breathtaking novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead demonstrates the earth-shattering power of an artistic voice to carry the legacy of the past into our now . He takes what we know to be true, but breaks free from the confines of history to create a brilliant work of fiction.

Cora is a young woman enslaved on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, like her mother and grandmother before her. She is the voice, the eyes, ears and body by which the reader witnesses and suffers the brutality of slavery- the rape and beatings, the whippings, torture and murder of the men and women who make up her community, however transitory and temporary it is. Cora “had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft.”

Cora's mother escaped years earlier, leaving her young daughter—a betrayal and an abandonment that burns deep in Cora's heart. Knowing the horrors that await a captured runaway slave, escape is only a fantasy, until Cora meets Caesar, a new arrival on the plantation. Caesar tells her about about the free north where he once lived and the way out of their imprisonment, by way of an underground railroad. He convinces her to flee, and we as readers are led from the nightmare of plantation life to the heart-stopping tension of escape.

The Underground Railroad takes on a hallucinatory affect, as Whitehead makes literal the metaphorical network of safe houses that ran from the southern United States north into Canada in the 19th century. In reality, it was neither underground nor a railroad, but in this author's vibrant and vital imagination, the underground railroad is an almost faerie tale-like system, complete with stations and conductors hidden just beneath the scorched earth of slavery.

Chapters of Cora and Caesar's escape alternate with the stories of other characters in the world they are fleeing, most notably the slave hunter in pursuit, Ridgeway. Ridgeway tracked but never found Cora's mother, Mabel, and this failure drives him to pursue Cora from state to state in a near-frenzy of diabolical hatred and determination.

The surreal nature of the narrative makes the reality of slavery even more present and vivid. It is hard to grasp, and yet essential that we do, our recent history and how it continues to shape our present. Colson Whitehead has written a bold and terrible, beautiful and mythic novel that will hold you from the opening pages and not release you, even after you come to its end. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,779 reviews14.2k followers
June 16, 2016
Cora, was a young slave on a Georgia plantation when her mother escaped, leaving Cora to the mercy of the other women in the quarters. Despite hiring a notorious slave tracker, she was never found.To say this plantation did not treat its slaves well is an understatement, some of the punishments devised caused me to, skim over them they are that horrific. When a new intelligent black man, a young man whose master had falsely promised to free him on her death, arrives as a new slave on the plantation, he and a series of events will cause them both to flee.

Second book on slavery I have read in a matter of days, and it doesn't get any easier. Will never understand man's cruelty towards others, no matter how much I read. This is a very good book though, and I just loved the character of Cora, she is amazing in so many ways. The underground railroad played an important part in bringing slaves to freedom and the author does something entirely original with this concept. A touch of magical realism that allows us to follow Cora as she is taken state to state. Forced sterilizations in South Carolinas, the fugitive slave act and its consequences, those hired to being back runaway slaves and what happens to, those who aid these slaves, not a pretty picture. We do meet many good people though, people that at great risk to themselves aided those they could.

Tough read, worthy read. Imaginative and inventive. Another new author for me, but I will be looking into his other books.

ARC from publisher.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,049 reviews48.7k followers
August 2, 2016
Nobody could wait for Colson Whitehead’s new book — including Oprah, so here it is, a month early. In a surprise announcement Tuesday morning, Winfrey chose “The Underground Railroad” as the next title for Oprah’s Book Club. Originally set to release on Sept. 13, the novel is available now, the result of an extraordinary plan to start shipping 200,000 copies out to booksellers in secret.

Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, “The Underground Railroad” marks a new triumph for Whitehead. Since his first novel, “The Intuitionist” (1999), the MacArthur “genius” has nimbly explored America’s racial consciousness — and more — with an exhilarating blend of comedy, history, horror and speculative fiction. In this new book, though, those elements are choreographed as never before. The soaring arias of cleverness he’s known for have been modulated in these pages. The result is a book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. “The Underground Railroad” reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,118 followers
April 22, 2023
This novel is a triumphant act of imagination.

Granted: there were many things I didn't like about the novel. There were too many characters, too superficially drawn. Sometimes I felt there was too much narrative summary. The bad guys were specious evil caricatures rather than multidimensional. There was an odd distancing effect between the reader and any one character because there is so little offered of each character's interior thinking.

But complaining about these flaws, if I can call them flaws in a book I loved reading so much, feels something like complaining about the boring parts in a Shakespeare play--the masque scene in The Tempest that always gets cut, or the hour or so of lines typically left out of Hamlet productions like when Hamlet soliloquizes about eating crocodiles and so on.

The Underground Railroad feels like so much a more than a metaphor. To imagine a real railroad dug by African American hands and kept secret from their white enslavers is a slap-in-the-face reminder of the extraordinary accomplishments of African American slaves, that they could ever imagine a better life for themselves or imagine that they deserved a better life or could step out into an utter unknown of danger, and claim their freedom. By making this impossible Railroad real, Whitehead forces readers to acknowledge just how unbelievable and extraordinary the true history of African American resistance really is.

Another narrative technique I loved, something that worked well when it shouldn't have, was Whitehead's use of interstitial brief chapters to give the backstory of characters who had already died. On the surface I can't think of a more obvious way to grind the story to a halt than with a side story of a character who has already reached his/her literal end, but, wow. These were amazing. I was grateful for the detours.
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,706 reviews25k followers
June 5, 2017
The foundations of the United States are built on slavery and this dark history informs its evolution right up to present day where the current political environment has legitimised racism. This book is set in the early 19th century and Whitehead has made the actual allegorical historical railroad into a physical one that Cora travels on, giving her and us insights into the nature of slavery and racism, seeing the differences in how it is implemented in the states it passes through and just how white American society systematically dehumanised slaves and black people from every conceivable angle. This is a brutal and harrowing read, that takes liberties with history for the purpose of illuminating a history that is important, relevant in today's US, particularly given the post-truth world where falsehoods are peddled as reality.

It begins in Georgia at the Randall Plantation, a place where black slaves experiences comprise of castration, sexual abuse, lynchings and more. After a particularly severe beating, Cora courageously decides to join Caesar in search of freedom through the legendary Railroad. Their escape results in Randall setting a slave catcher, Ridgeway, after them. Ridgeway is particularly invested in getting Cora because of his history with her mother. This fuels the fears and tensions in Cora in her efforts to evade him. As she travels through the different states Cora finds that her elusive hopes for freedom and independence are challenged as she becomes aware that the chains that bind are more firmly entrenched than might first appear. We have the practices of covert medical experimentation and sterilisation. At every level, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual, slaves and black people are a target. The bible is used to justify and bolster this rotten, amoral and cruel system.

In some ways, a first person account from Cora would have proved a more viscerally engaging experience for the reader. The characterisations in the novel are not its greatest strength, that lies in the black American history and experience compacted into Cora's train journey. For that, the author is to be applauded in its timely reminder of a history that is often swept under the carpet or questioned. This is a read that I highly recommend. Not an easy or comfortable read but a necessary one. Thanks to Little, Brown for an ARC.
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews157k followers
August 23, 2017
I put off reading this book, because even though I was intrigued by the whole “literal underground railroad” concept, I am also not typically a historical fiction reader. When it won the National Book Award I picked it up, and slowly read it throughout the winter in bits and pieces. Many scenes were harrowing and it was difficult to read at times. I had to walk away from it often. I read it again this month in preparation for a book discussion with the author we hosted at my library. The second time around, I could focus on the writing, the structure, and the way each scene was constructed, because I already knew the heartbreaking and horrifying details of what the characters endured, and I loved the book so much more. I’m not generally one who re-reads books, and this reading experience has me re-thinking that policy.

— Molly Wetta

from The Best Books We Read In April 2017: https://bookriot.com/2017/05/01/riot-...

I went into this book with expectations sky high (Oprah AND Obama picked it as a must-read) and I’m happy to report that Underground Railroad more than lived up to the hype. It’s a searing account of American racism and African American agency set against the backdrop of pre-Civil War America. I tend to be very picky about my historical fiction and, under normal circumstances, I’d be grumpy about a book that takes events from several different eras and has them happen simultaneously or suggested that the Underground Railroad was literally a railroad. In Underground Railroad it all works beautifully. I never once felt grumpy that Whitehead condensed events or shifted some details in service of a larger truth. This book gave me ample fodder for thought, conversation, and writing.

— Ashley Bowen-Murphy

from The Best Books We Read In September 2016: http://bookriot.com/2016/10/03/riot-r...

I’m sure there’s not much else I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. Oprah used one of her many superpowers to have it published a month and a half early. It has to be a special kind of book that will inspire that kind of action. And The Underground Railroad didn’t disappoint. I’ve read many slave narratives, but Whitehead’s writing and characters left me destroyed after I closed the book.

–Elizabeth Allen

from The Best Books We Read In August 2016: http://bookriot.com/2016/08/31/riot-r...

I have had three weeks to sit with this book since I finished it, and I am still not done processing it. I don’t know that I will ever be done, or that I want to be. Whitehead’s tale of Cora, an escaped slave fleeing numerous dangers, is harrowing and heart-wrenching, and the writing is so exquisite that I felt the story sharply. I cried three times by page seven, and countless times after, repeatedly moved by Cora’s struggle to find a moment’s peace in a horrific world that does not believe her worthy of it. That is the magic of this book. Whitehead tells Cora’s story so simply, so matter-of-fact, it makes the horrors all the more real. To us, it is a horrifying look at a shameful, inexcusable part of history; to Cora, it is just life as she knows it. My heart felt like it had been sledgehammered by the end. I cannot stop thinking about this book, and will not be surprised in the least if it wins all the awards. Whitehead is a remarkable, multifaceted writer, and this is his best yet.
— Liberty Hardy

from The Best Books We Read In March: http://bookriot.com/2016/04/04/riot-r...


Colson Whitehead is one of my favorite authors and I am here for anything he writes, especially because every book is such a different experience than anything he’s written before. This story of a runaway slave named Cora has prose that is both rich and fluid, where you know it’s beautifully written but you have trouble slowing down to appreciate it because you’re moving along so quickly through the story. It has the weight and depth of an allegory, as well as the detail and insight of a character-driven novel. The cherry on top of this impressive accomplishment is a burst of magical realism that is yet another reason this book is unlike any other you’ve read. This will be one of the big fall releases, but it’ll also be one of the big books of the year. Get ready to see it on a lot of “Best of 2016” lists, including mine.

– Jessica Woodbury

from The Best Books We Read In April: http://bookriot.com/2016/04/29/riot-r...
Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.5k followers
March 16, 2019
i am so thankful that historical fiction is such an accessible genre. i dont think i would have learned half the stuff i know today without it. i love that it allows readers to experience history in a completely new light, while still being exposed to its significance.

that being said, sometimes the execution of a story just doesnt do a particular moment in history justice. which is what i found to be the case with this book.

this honestly had so much potential to be a five star read for me. i think the concept of an actual underground railroad is such a clever way to tell a story. i thought it could have been used as great vehicle (no pun intended) to really motivate and move the characters, but its significance is rather dull on paper. and i blame that on the writing.

the writing style very emotionally detached, almost clinical in feeling (aka giving off those classic textbook vibes). it also doesnt allow for any sort of connection to the characters or their plight, which is the whole point of reading a historical fiction novel rather than a textbook.

but even though this isnt as impactful as i hoped it would be, its still very informative. there are many moments in the novel that go into great and horrific detail about the life of slaves. while unpleasant, those components are so important and necessary and i appreciate this book for including them.

so overall, i would say this story has a pretty good foundation, but unfortunately suffers from an underwhelming execution.

3 stars
Profile Image for Brina.
933 reviews4 followers
June 11, 2017
DNF-- the characters did not resonate with me. If I were to compare Underground Railroad to Homegoing, I thought the latter to be the better book this year. Underground Railroad was tough to get into and perhaps if more action had occurred in the first part of the book, I would have liked it more.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,113 followers
October 23, 2020
Well, I finally read it. I don't think I waited long enough because I felt like I'd read it already through all the award discussions and Oprah press and review traffic. When it was also included on the Man Booker Prize Long List and I had literally tried all of the 12 other titles, I decided to finally read it.

I had picked up on the idea that it was still the south but an actual railroad. What I wasn't really expecting was that it would be a litany of all the horrors enacted on black people in America, but just told in a more creative setting. I'm not sure what I think of this concept and at what point suffering becomes gratuitous. I keep thinking of the book that got less attention, Underground Airlines, where the author Ben H. Winters is simply more successful in asking the question, "What If?"

One common theme was that of enslavement and the many ways it can repeat, perpetuate, permeate. Early on there is this passage:
The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.
And passages like that come up throughout the book. In many ways I felt like the same core ideas were repeating and while I agree history is like that, it made the book feel longer than it needed to, and I was ready to be done with it.

ETA: Reread in 2020 during the Tournament of Books "Super Rooster," because I was a guest commentator for the judgment between this book and Normal People in the quarterfinal rounds. I would say 4 stars is spot on, although I remembered feeling 3 stars about it.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,795 reviews2,388 followers
November 26, 2017
3.5 Stars

”The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”

”The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
This was her grand mother talking.”

The year is 1812, and we begins on a plantation in Georgia, the Randall plantation, where we are introduced to young Cora, a girl whose mother left her behind in her search for freedom. Although her mother never told her this, she’s been told this so often, she’s sure her mother is living a free and easier life now, most likely up in Canada.

”Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.

”It was her grandmother talking that Sunday evening when Caesar approached Cora about the underground railroad, and she said no.
“Three weeks later she said yes.
“This time it was her mother talking.”

And on this one night, after too many nights and years have passed, with the thoughts of freedom calling her, she leaves the only place she’s ever lived and heads for a life. Freedom. Living.

From early on, she faces trials and tribulations she never even paused to think of, things that will scar her heart and that her mind can never truly forget.

”Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.”

I enjoyed the first half of this book more than I did the last. There is a somewhat disjointed nature to the last half as they were forced to move soon after they reached their destination, and began to be comfortable enough. They were never so comfortable as to stop looking over their shoulders for slave catchers. I felt a detachment in the telling, I kept wishing he had used Cora as the narrator, I knew what was happening to her, but wanted to hear from her those innermost thoughts that ran through her; her fears, her hopes for the future. I wanted to feel her story. The story moved me, but not as much as if I’d felt her story.

The tempo of this is somewhat erratic, Colson seems to be trying to wrap up more loose ends of more minor stories that I wouldn’t have noticed—or cared, if I had noticed—that he’d left unresolved. I understand why, I just felt that it hurt his story rather than helped him reveal more of the heinous treatment of human beings under slavery.

I was hesitant to read this because I’d read about the “Underground Railroad” in this story, being an actual railroad. I have to say that in reading this, it didn’t affect much for me, but my initial gut reaction remains: Why? I didn’t feel it added anything to the story.

Favourite quote:

”She grabbed his hand. The almanac had a strange soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.”

You won me back, a little, with that, Colson Whitehead.

Many thanks, once again, to the Public Library system, and the many Librarians that manage, organize and keep it running, for the loan of this book!
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
652 reviews386 followers
August 13, 2018
I rarely get to read books when they are in their acute hype phase, but I decided to put an Audible credit towards critical darling Colson Whitehead's latest novel. A couple drives back and forth across the province and I'm all done with The Underground Railroad and ready to render my verdict.


The premise is pretty enticing: a reimagining of the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad underground. It's exactly the sort of spin on the slavery narrative that critics will gobble up while having an "elevator pitch" hook that will draw in casual readers. The Underground Railroad also plays a bit loose with history to better achieve Truth rather than historical accuracy. So, this one aims to put story first, and leave the particulars of history to those at mahogany desks cloaked in tweed.

The thing is, I had expected to be enamoured with the book. Instead, while I can objectively appreciate its craft and structure, The Underground Railroad left me a bit lukewarm. I have a tough time putting my finger on exactly what didn't jive for me, but I'll do my best to provide an opinion that will help you decide if you should spend your time traveling on Whitehead's line.


In Cora, Whitehead has constructed a believable, endearing, and well-developed character. The Underground Railroad opens in Georgia with the story of Cora's tempestuous upbringing on a plantation and the tenacity that leads to her flight. Though the horrors inflicted upon Cora and her fellow slaves are shocking, this section of the book had me hooked by Cora's character alone. Her refusal to give up in the face of adversity is both compelling and admirable, and never did I feel as if Cora's development was artificial.

By contrast, Whitehead introduces a series of ancillary characters and stories throughout the narrative that are hit and miss. Some of these secondary players, Ridgeway the slave catcher comes to mind, are well-developed enough that I felt as if I understood their motivations, however twisted. Others just seemed like Whitehead needed a break from the main story and didn't really hit home for me. Of course, these interludes are brief and by no means sour the listening/reading experience.

The railroad, I must admit, captured my imagination from the moment it appears on the page. The stations, each of different decoration, manned by a different station master were always exciting stops in the story. This is due in no small part to the almost thriller-like passages where Cora is forced to escape her current lodgings for an unknown destination. For me, these thriller passages varied in their ability to keep me hooked on every word, and never did I feel as if Cora was going to meet her end; however, the threat of some new torture being inflicted on Cora is ever-present.


When Cora spends time in a variety of states, each with their own new horror pulled from history and stitched together, the book sags hard. I felt as if each city and residence was just a stop along the way for Cora to ponder the philosophy of just exactly what was wrong with that state's way of treating black people. Don't get me wrong: each and every one of these locations holds some form of terror, some subtle and some overt, but it just gets a bit stale after a while.

And maybe this is where I lose the thread that pulls along the train of Whitehead fans. I wasn't thrilled when the story went from novel to philosophical pondering. It was different reading Coates' Between the World and Me because I expected that to be a more academic experience, but The Underground Railroad halts and stops on the tracks when Whitehead gets in a pensive mood. I felt like I was being pulled out of the story for a lecture ever once and a while, and it really cut into the stronger aspects of Whitehead's story.


I'd previously read Whitehead's Sag Harbour, and had a ho-hum reaction to that at the time too. There were parts of that book that I really enjoyed too, it's just that there was always something missing that was just out of reach. I know that the philosophical sections didn't do much for me, but I was along for the ride with Cora. Maybe it's just that Whitehead isn't for me.

It's quite possible you'll have a different reaction. After all, a lot of people seem to be all over this book! As for me, I can appreciate the work objectively, but subjectively I wasn't engaged with the story.

SIDE-NOTE: Anyone have any Whitehead books that they absolutely love? I'm not willing to give up on him yet, and I think I'd take one more swing with him before abandoning him entirely.

[Review of Audiobook]
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,064 reviews1,907 followers
April 17, 2018
Everybody knew niggers didn't have birthdays.

*Carmen sips coffee* OK, let's do this thing! Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Yes.

I've been putting off reading this for a very long time now. Really dreading it, for a plethora of reasons. Pulitzer novels make me wary, for one thing. For another thing, I'm not into rape/torture/rape/death/rape/torture/mutilation books, and this seemed like it was going to fall into this category. Thirdly, I'm always highly skeptical when men write women as MCs and win huge awards for it. Skeptical. SKEPTICAL.

Cora is a slave in Georgia. The book is about her life on the plantation, her subsequent escape through the underground railroad, and her journey. Her journey toward what? I have no fucking idea. Let's break this down.

There are good things and bad things I have to say about this book. *sips coffee*


Let's start off with the positive. Hmmmmmm, there's so much good here it's hard for me to know where to start.

ONE: Whitehead is actual a pretty decent writer. And by 'pretty decent writer,' I mean the way he strings words together is effective and can be stunning. This doesn't mean I'm saying he's good at plotting or other aspects of writing which we will definitely be critiquing heavily in the What Colson Whitehead does poorly section of this review. *sips coffee*

But the way he actually crafts sentences and paragraphs is powerful. Let's take a look:

The white men were silent. As if they'd given up or decided that a small freedom was the worst punishment of all, presenting the bounty of true freedom into painful relief.
She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves had finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables - this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.
The slave catcher had little choice but to call upon the man after midnight. He daintily sewed their hoods from white sacks of flour but could barely move his fingers after their visit - his fists swelled for two days from beating the man's face in. He permitted his men to dishonor the man's wife in ways he never let them use a nigger gal. For years after whenever Ridgeway saw a bonfire, the smell reminded him of the sweet smoke of Carter's house going up and a figment of a smile settled on his mouth.
Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that's what you do when you take away someone's babies - steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.
Carpenter snarled when he said the word, a mangy dog hoarding his bone: NIGGER. Stevens never used the word. He disapproved of racial prejudice. Indeed, an uneducated Irishman like Carpenter, steered by society to a life of rummaging graves, had more in common with a negro than a white doctor. He wouldn't say that aloud, of course. Sometimes Stevens wondered if his views weren't quaint, given the temper of the modern world. The other students uttered the most horrible things about the colored population of Boston, about their smell, their intellectual deficiencies, their primitive drives. Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man's equal.

Whitehead drops true statements and observations about the world. He really captures the essence of things, sometimes:

No chains fastened Cora's misfortunes to her character or actions. Her skin was black and this was how the world treated black people. No more, no less.

And he made me laugh, only once. This is a pretty dark book.

At least in Virginia, lynch mobs maintained a pretext of spontaneity. They didn't string up people practically on your front lawn, the same time every week, like church.

This here is an example of not only great writing, but something believable and true:

She had never seen colored men hold guns. The image shocked her, a new idea too big to fit into her mind.

I wish there had been more of this kind of stuff in the book, instead, Whitehead is prone to bombastic passages on philosophy. I liked more practical revelations, like when Cora regrets not having sex with her beau:

Why had she put ----- off for so long? She thought they had time enough. Another thing that might have been, snipped at the roots as if by one of Dr. Stevens's surgical blades. She let the farm convince her the world is other than what it will always be. He must have known she loved him even if she hadn't told him. He had to.

TWO: Whitehead is not a skeeze or a pervert. I am so relieved. In a book that is obviously going to have a truck-load of rape in it, I really appreciated that he didn't go into graphic detail about sexual stuff, whether it was rape or consensual. This goes triple since he is a man writing a woman MC. I have to give him major props here. Not because he wrote a believable female character (he didn't) but because he didn't give into the impulse a lot of authors have to make it 'gritty' by describing rape in detail or, conversely, fucking it up because he wants to delve deeply into explicit consensual sex scenes in which he will say something ludicrous that will jolt me out of the story when I'm reminded he's a man attempting to write a female character.

I never forgot he was a man, he failed to craft a realistic female MC IMO, but at least he didn't fuck up the sex or embarrass himself with the rape scenes.

THREE: It is SO important to learn about slavery in the U.S. of A. No matter the color of your skin, your ethnicity, your background or your nationality. I really think it is important. Just like I encourage Americans to study huge events and atrocities that take place in other parts of the world (that often they are not even aware of), I also encourage non-Americans to study slavery and modern-day racism in the U.S. of A.

Whitehead has poured 16 years of hard research into this book, and it shows. I think we need more hardhitting novels about slavery. Whitehead is actually providing a huge service here. I can see this book being taught in schools, and it should be. He really immerses you in this time period and he doesn't shy away from the horrors and realities of slavery.

As hard as it is to read - and it is very brutal - I think it is very important to know what people do to each other. After all, slaves still exist, it's just that slavery is underground now, but I think it's important to understand how human beings treat each other and what kind of despair and inhumanity can be spawned by taking away human rights from someone.

This is coming from someone who usually is unable to read a book containing rape.

Whitehead's brilliance is in making the book brutal and horrifying, but staying away from sentiment or maudlin handwringing. His ruthless matter-of-factness only elevates the novel to a better plane of existence in this case.

Whitehead is warning us not to get soft. This is valid and meaningful. In a world where people no longer think vaccines or water treatment is necessary and people deny the Holocaust, we are at a time in history when books like this are more important than ever.

THREE: Whitehead seems to have a natural talent for writing horror. If you like horror novels, you may enjoy this book. And no, I'm not talking about the horrors of slavery, I'm talking about straight-up horror writing in the vein of King, Grey, Malfi or Hill. I mean, he's no Stephen King, but he does have a talent for horror-writing IMO.

FOUR: The book is engaging and moves at a fast clip.

FIVE: This isn't about black people vs. white people. Whitehead may be reductionist, but he actually covers this fairly well. Slave women are gangraped by male slaves. And they are raped by white men. White people murder and torture black people. White people sometimes help black people and lose their lives for it. Sometimes black people help other black people. Sometimes, black people betray and murder other black people. Even though this book is SO MUCH about race and race relations, AND Whitehead tends to simplify in a lot of ways, one way he does not simplify is by making some kind of statement that all white people are x or all black people are y - beyond the obvious horrifying results of slavery and institutionalized, systemic racism.

I know what you are thinking. Well, what about Latino people and Asian people? Well, there are no Latino or Asian people in this universe! 🙃


The book has major flaws.

ONE: Cora has no personality.

Not only does Cora have no personality, but neither does any other character in the whole entire book.

Whitehead seems incapable of crafting characters. The people in this novel are soulless husks that are merely used by Whitehead as mouthpieces to pontificate his views, ideas, philosophies, and theories on racism and man's inhumanity to man.

I'm not exaggerating: neither Cora nor any character in this book has any traits, characteristics, or personality of any kind.

TWO: Not only do the characters have no personality, but they only commit actions. No one has any feelings or emotions. No one acts in a human way - not Cora, not any of the other slaves, not any of the white characters. There's no heart or human emotion in this book at all.

You might react to the suffering and cruelty, there is plenty of horrifying suffering and cruelty here, but no human emotions or thoughts to back it up. On the side of both 'good' and 'evil,' no emotions or motivations. These people might as well be Martians for how well they represent human beings. Whether the most horrible, abusive, rapist piece of shit or the most spat-upon broken slave or the most saintly abolitionist, not a single one of these creations of Whitehead's has a shred of actual human breath in them. Complete failure.

Because of these two points, if you are looking for a character-driven book, or a novel in the sense that it is a NOVEL, you will be very disappointed here. Whitehead fails to capture the human essence that is so vital in novels.

THREE: Whitehead tends to dream up concepts, tell you about them, and then tell you about them. And then tell you about them. And then tell you about them again. And you're like, "I get it. I got it the first four times. Thanks." He just can't let things naturally break upon you, he has to hammer shit in. It's heavy-handed, repetitive, and unnecessary.

FOUR: Some of the book just doesn't make ANY sense, and I'm not talking about the magical realism. This ties in with Whitehead's inability to craft human, feeling, breathing characters. Cora acts in a way that ONLY serves Whitehead. She has no personality or traits. She is brave when he wants her to be brave, cowardly when it serves him, brash when it serves him, shy when it serves him. She does whatever Whitehead needs her to do in a scene, she has no character or personality which can lead the reader to get a sense of who she is or why she does what she does.

This often leads to scenes where you are like, "What the FUCK is she saying that for?" "Why is she suddenly doing x? That is incredibly stupid." But she's simply doing and saying those things to spout / illustrate Whitehead's philosophies and dogma.

The 'characters' are merely scarecrows that Whitehead animates in order to illustrate his concepts. So oftentimes they do stuff that in actuality makes zero sense.

FIVE: Whitehead tends to really simplify things and boil them down to their most basic concepts. In a way this is necessary - otherwise the book could easily be 1,000 pages - but sometimes I was annoyed by how broad a brush Whitehead was using to paint groups of people. No one was nuanced or had layers. Everyone was simplistic and had the most basic of attributes that were never fully explored or explained.

Again, Whitehead does this to illustrate his core ideas and to pit caricatures against one another. It's very reductionist and can get annoying. In this town, everyone is a rapist and murderer. In this town, every single person is a pious Christian. In this town, absolutely every white person agrees that all black people should be hanged. In this town, every white person has sympathy towards the plight of escaped slaves. It's like, no, Whitehead, people themselves as individuals are complicated and communities are as well, on a different scale. Please illustrate this. But no, he insists on boiling everything down to its simplest form.

I get it - he's doing a take on Gulliver's Travels, and he spells this out for us, but it is still rather annoying to this reader. Take the book as an allegory, you'll be a lot happier than I was.

SIX: Sometimes, you are just like, "What the fuck, Whitehead?"

"I have black skin, but I don't have a tail. As far as I know - I never thought to look," Cora said. "Slavery is a curse, though, that much is true." Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.

Is she... is this supposed to be a joke? She's in a serious conversation with a woman who has no sense of humor, and Cora's certainly never displayed any humor, so I read this as serious. o.O Which makes me question what on earth Whitehead is doing.

The interplay between Ridgeway and Cora is like this, as well. You are reading their 'conversations' and 'banter' and you are just like o.O No way would this ever take place, which brings me back to Whitehead using his characters as soulless tools to illustrate concepts rather than human beings.

For instance, on page 221, when Whitehead suddenly tries to convince me that , which comes out of fucking nowhere, and goes on and on about survival and Manifest Destiny etc. etc. The very idea of Cora and Ridgeway sitting down to soup and discussing intellectual ideas about humanity's existence and it's morals is COMPLETELY LUDICROUS and just one example of how Whitehead isn't really crafting a story here, but instead educating and preaching.

SEVEN: Whitehead jumps all over the place. I was able to follow the timeline MOST of the time, but I know a lot of people got lost reading this. He doesn't introduce flashbacks, and sometimes he ends a scene and then jumps forward suddenly into a different time and place. It's annoying.

EIGHT: Sometimes Colson Whitehead will mention someone like, "She couldn't believe he'd said that about Steven." and I'm like, "Who the FUCK is Steven?" And then I'll have to flip back six pages to where 'Steven' is mentioned and try to figure out who he is and how he fits into all this. This happened two or three times and it should have happened zero times.

NINE: There's no real ending or point to this book. I closed the book baffled, wondering what the hell had just happened. I was also very unsatisfied. This is NOT because I was seeking a happy ending to the book. It could have had a sad ending, or any ending, or even a fucking point.

Whitehead does not have a point, story arc, or ability in this novel to carry you from point A to point B. It's frustrating.

TL;DR I suppose if you read this as an allegory or a fable you might enjoy this more. Perhaps if you take it as symbolism, it not only makes more sense but won't anger you with it's complete lack of plot and character development.

This is a thoughtful, powerful, heavily researched book that can teach us a lot about racism and humanity.

But as a novel it is a failure. Despite Whitehead's obvious talent and writing ability, he completely fails at things like character, personality, nuance, and subtlety.

If you are looking for a CHARACTER-DRIVEN NOVEL with a STORY ARC and a plot, this is not going to please you.

However, Whitehead does have some illuminating things to say about race, racism, and how completely terrible human beings are. I'm not even being sarcastic, the book violently wakes you up and reminds you of all the suffering that has gone on in the world and is still going on today. It makes you take a good, hard look at yourself and reassess who you are in this life and who you want to be. I'm not talking (solely) about racism here, I'm talking about all the fucked-up things that are going on in the world right now. It's shocking to remember how cruel and soulless people can be to other people.

If you are looking for Pulitzer-Prize worthy writing... well, I don't see the problem here. Whitehead can write, although he does tend to repeat himself and go off on rants about certain subjects.

I'm going to have to give this five stars with the warning that it is FAR from perfect, has lots of flaws, and isn't going on my favorites shelf.

Like The Goldfinch and All the Light We Cannot See - two other Pulitzer Prize winning books - The Underground Railroad is well-written but deeply flawed. Like The Goldfinch and All the Light We Cannot See, I am giving this five stars, but it is not perfect. NOT PERFECT. And not on my favorites shelf. Deeply flawed. But with enough redeeming value that I can't hold back a five-star rating.

An example of another author trying to do this exact thing and failing horribly would be The Patience Stone, which is like the one-star version of this novel. o.O So, Whitehead could have done a lot worse. Keep that in mind.

Read at your own risk.

In effect, they abolished slavery. On the contrary, Oney Garrison said in response. We abolished niggers.
Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews653 followers
March 23, 2022
What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.
“All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family. We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”
I feel like the one thing everyone knows about this brilliant book is that, as the Goodreads description says, “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.” It’s absolutely true, and yet in some ways it might be the least interesting thing about The Underground Railroad. The use of a literal Underground Railroad allows the characters to easily move to different places throughout the United States in order to tell different stories, similar to Gulliver’s Travels and The Odyssey before it. It’s clever to be sure, but it’s a plot technique as much as anything. It’s the story that technique is used to tell that’s so impressive.

After a brutal opening depicting Africans being brought to America to be sold into slavery, the story first settles into life on a Georgia cotton plantation, shown through the eyes of our main character, Cora. Soon, however, Cora goes on the run, using the Underground Railroad (and occasionally other means) to travel to South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and points beyond. Cora’s tour of the antebellum South depicts different ways whites and African-Americans have co-existed (or not) in different places through the years. Spoiler alert: it’s rarely good for the African-Americans, from the ever-present threats of lynching, assault, rape and recapture to forced sterilization and medical experimentation. Second spoiler alert: it’s also rarely good for those few sympathetic, abolitionist whites.

Although the story is primarily told from Cora’s perspective, there are several other important characters who are quickly fleshed out through the author’s descriptive writing. There’s Caesar, who first helps Cora escape:
Caesar pictured his father cutting cane in a Florida hell, burning his flesh as he stooped over the big kettles of molten sugar. The cat-o’- nine-tails biting into his mother’s back when she failed to keep the pace with her sack. Stubborn breaks when it don’t bend, and his family had spent too much time with the kindly white folks in the north. Kindly in that they didn’t see fit to kill you fast. One thing about the south, it was not patient when it came to killing negroes.
There’s Mabel, the mother who left Cora behind years earlier to make her own escape from Randall Plantation: “The first and last things she gave to her daughter were apologies.” And there’s the villainous slave catcher Ridgeway, who failed to find Mabel years ago and pursues Cora with an Ahab/Javert-level intensity:
All these years later, I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.
The Underground Railroad is beautifully written, even though it’s subject matter is often so dark. The brutality and injustice of it all comes alive:
The corpses hung from trees as rotting ornaments. Some of them were naked, others partially clothed, the trousers black where their bowels emptied when their necks snapped. Gross wounds and injuries marked the flesh of those closest to her, the two caught by the station agent’s lantern. One had been castrated, an ugly mouth gaping where his manhood had been. The other was a woman. Her belly curved. Cora had never been good at knowing if a body was with a child. Their bulging eyes seemed to rebuke her stares, but what were the attentions of one girl, disturbing their rest, compared to how the world had scourged them since the day they were brought into it?

“They call this road the Freedom Trail now,” Martin said as he covered the wagon again. “The bodies go all the way to town.”

In what sort of hell had the train let her off?
It’s the best kind of literary fiction, examining serious questions of the human condition using plain, unpretentious language that still concisely conveys clear, often haunting images and ideas. It must take incredible talent and work to craft such seemingly effortless prose. The Underground Railroad is an extraordinary work looking back on how far our country has come, and showing why we still have so far to go. A must read.

Update: the good people at the Pop Chart Lab recently updated their 100 Essential Novels list, adding five new novels and removing five old ones. The Underground Railroad is one of the five novels that got added to the list. Well done, Pop Chart Lab!
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