Trish's Reviews > The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
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did not like it
bookshelves: america, fiction, historical-novel, race

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.
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Reading Progress

July 12, 2016 – Shelved
July 12, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
July 23, 2016 – Started Reading
July 23, 2016 –
page 55
17.97% "Showing my ignorance now...didn't realize there was an actual underground railroad. Thought it was meant metaphorically."
July 23, 2016 –
page 160
52.29% "Surprised. Not liking this as much as I expected. Seems not developed enough as a storyline--more a collection of fictional elements."
July 24, 2016 – Shelved as: america
July 24, 2016 – Shelved as: fiction
July 24, 2016 – Shelved as: historical-novel
July 24, 2016 – Shelved as: race
July 24, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 132 (132 new)


message 1: by jo (new) - rated it 3 stars

jo i'm going to go with your review. is there a CW that you love?


message 2: by Trish (last edited Jul 24, 2016 12:07PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish jo wrote: "i'm going to go with your review. is there a CW that you love?"

Had plans to read some of his earlier work before, particularly The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death, the notion of which appealed to me, but read this one first. Come to think of it, believe I read Sag Harbor when it came out (before Goodreads) and didn't like that either, particularly. Probably won't get to those earlier ones, though I may skim a few, just to see if I can find what everyone was so excited about. It was a different time when he began writing, and novels from and about black men may have been thin on the ground. Note he is a Harvard College grad and probably had plenty of backing if they got their machine ramped up...just a thought.


message 3: by Carol (new)

Carol I'm bummed at your conclusion because I had the same high hopes as for this work. On the other hand, Trish, this excellent, detailed review with examples Is excellent. Those sentences? Awkward.


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Outstanding review, Trish. Thank you.


Trish Carol wrote: "I'm bummed at your conclusion because I had the same high hopes as for this work. On the other hand, Trish, this excellent, detailed review with examples Is excellent. Those sentences? Awkward."

Yes. I am not happy he did not succeed. It almost seemed as though he was aiming at a YA audience, but that makes it even worse, to my mind. YA will be confused forever more about the truth of the matter and the writing doesn't teach them anything worthwhile. On the other hand, it shows us, voracious readers all, just how hard it is to write a novel in which a whole, believable world is created.


message 6: by Carol (new)

Carol Very surprised with the 2 stars and your comments. I'll take your word for it as you are very reputable and skip this one.


Trish Carol wrote: "Very surprised with the 2 stars and your comments. I'll take your word for it as you are very reputable and skip this one."

Me, too. Wish I could say you should read it anyway, but I truly don't think it is worth the effort.


message 8: by Trish (last edited Aug 02, 2016 05:59AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Well, the NYT has weighed in with this review today, & Oprah picked it for her next Book Club Reads. So there you go...different folks, different strokes...


message 9: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Jensen I don't often read Oprah's book club picks, but I was going to grab this one because of the Underground Railroad. I love historical fiction that is ACCURATE, so I thank you greatly for your detailed review - I'll be skipping this one.


message 10: by Patrick (new) - added it

Patrick Carey It confuses me a bit when people read fiction then say something like with this book you won't get a "rich understanding of the real underground railroad for escaped slaves." For that you'd have to either look more closely at what you mean by "real" or read a non-fiction account of it, right? I'm not sure the highest aim of fiction is to give a rich understanding of things-as-they-are


message 11: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Patrick wrote: "It confuses me a bit when people read fiction then say something like with this book you won't get a "rich understanding of the real underground railroad for escaped slaves." For that you'd have to..."

Maybe, Patrick. You could be right. I, however, read fiction to know how someone else feels, thinks, experiences. We learn a lot about the author in what they choose to write, to reveal. I don't read much science fiction or fantasy because I feel I don't have time for the unbelievable or unreal. I want as much and as rich an understanding of normal human interaction as I can get.

A different review and interview in today's NYTimes talks a little about Colson Whitehead, his work and his attitudes. I am not surprised, now, that I didn't like the book. He is a little too casual for me in his view of race in America, and certainly slavery. Just different strokes. Let's see how other folks receive it.

And thanks for writing. Good point.


message 12: by Patrick (new) - added it

Patrick Carey Hi Trish,

Good points. I agree on wanting as rich an understanding of human interaction as I can get too. I just wonder how many different ways there are to do that.

Thanks for linking to the interview. How do you mean casual? I don't get the sense from the book or this interview that he's casual about anything? Do you mean more that it's not his focus? Maybe it doesn't go directly enough at it for your liking? I'm thinking of the moment when he says, "I’m someone who just likes being in my cave and thinking up weird stuff."


message 13: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Jennifer wrote: "I don't often read Oprah's book club picks, but I was going to grab this one because of the Underground Railroad. I love historical fiction that is ACCURATE, so I thank you greatly for your detaile..."

I'm sorry to have derailed your plans to read this. The review I point to above addresses pretty clearly the concerns I had about this work, and it may change your mind. I am usually able to catch on to literary techniques but because there were so few recent books on the actual underground railroad, a subject that really deserves a new treatment given our current state of awakened racial relations, I was distressed to see the subject distorted in this way. It is horrifying enough without adding events that came a century later and expecting that any of us would be able to sort that out, but especially school children. And some of the book is clearly aimed at that audience, and has an apple-cheeked station agent:
"Cora collapsed on the rocks and wept until sleep overtook her. The station agent woke her. "Oh!" the man said. His round red face poked through the space he's made at the top of the rubble. "Oh, dear," he said. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm a passenger, sir."
"Don't you know this station is closed?"
She coughed and rose, straightening her filthy dress.
"Oh dear, oh dear," he said.
His name was Martin Wells."
That just pissed me off, I'm sorry to report. But I am a humorless sort on this topic.


message 14: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Patrick wrote: "Maybe it doesn't go directly enough at it for your liking? I'm thinking of the moment when he says, "I’m someone who just likes being in my cave and thinking up weird stuff..."

Actually no, Patrick, that's not what I meant. It is his "distancing ironic lens" and this paragraph:
"Mr. Whitehead has generally not been one for full-throated celebration of African-American heroes. He and a friend once played around with a satirical website called Nat Turner Overdrive. The day after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, he published a riff of an Op-Ed in The New York Times hailing it as a historic victory for “Skinny Black Guys” like Sammy Davis Jr., Michael Jackson and himself."
His casualness about these topics make me want to back away. I am not ready for that kind of humor when considering slavery. He is way ahead of me on this. When we are all there, I think we will all be dead.


message 15: by Patrick (new) - added it

Patrick Carey Oh, I see on that bit. Do you think the book doesn't take slavery seriously? I think these kinds of things are very important and sit at the core of why fiction might be "useful" or not-- things I'm always curious but never sure about


message 16: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Patrick wrote: "Oh, I see on that bit. Do you think the book doesn't take slavery seriously? I think these kinds of things are very important and sit at the core of why fiction might be "useful" or not-- things I'..."

Well, the apple-cheeked station agent and the manner in which Cora addressed her rescuers set me to thinking...that he didn't have enough depth of feeling for the subject. Sure, he had some graphic images of what happened to slaves while white folks drank tea on the veranda, and the Tuskegee Experiments actually happened, though a century later. It was the juxtaposition of those things and the fake railroad and the queer language and the weird conversations that made me feel as though he was indeed not taking it seriously enough. He says in the interview he tried imagining how it could have been [to be clubbed to death in front of his children], but he wasn't able to transmit any of that horror or understanding to me.

But I am just one reader. I note that, besides Oprah, everyone is more impressed with his mash-up idea than the depth of his portrayal.


message 17: by Patrick (new) - added it

Patrick Carey Interesting, good to hear how you read it. I'm thinking of the opening sections of the book on Randall's plantation and I felt a whole lot of empathy there, some real ability to convey the horrors of his characters. But I'll have to take a closer look again.


message 18: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Patrick wrote: "Interesting, good to hear how you read it. I'm thinking of the opening sections of the book on Randall's plantation and I felt a whole lot of empathy there, some real ability to convey the horrors ..."

Well, he starts in a straightforward manner, another reason the railroad was so dislocating. But wasn't it just the parade of horrors that sort of got your interest? His characters, Cora and Caesar, were not involving in the least. And we're meant to trust them. Until Caesar disappears and Cora starts saying pretty wacky stuff.

It may have worked with another author. I just didn't think he had the goods to pull this off. Anyway, I'll be looking for your review.


Carol Scheherazade Trying to figure out? Seriously?


message 20: by Beth (new) - rated it 2 stars

Beth I felt the same way about the "actual" Underground Railroad. It took this seemingly serious and well researched novel eight into the the realm of fantasy and suddenly I felt like I had completed one, brilliant, book and moved into another with a completely distorted timeline and oddly futuristic feel to it.


message 21: by Trish (last edited Aug 09, 2016 07:33PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Beth wrote: "I felt the same way about the "actual" Underground Railroad. It took this seemingly serious and well researched novel eight into the the realm of fantasy and suddenly I felt like I had completed on..."

Yes, I realized later that he'd intended to mash-up the history line, but I didn't think it worked well. It was the catalog all the horrible things we have done to an oppressed minority alongside a queerly childish treatment in storyline and language...it just didn't work for me. I prefer my truth straight and raw.

I was going to say I think straight-up truth makes a bigger impression, but I don't think that is true. I think Whitehead has made a very big impression indeed, and if it makes people examine this period closely, I think he can be very proud of himself. That doesn't make it good literature, however.


message 22: by Carol (new)

Carol Your review gives me pause for thought, Trish. I added this one because Ron Charles gave it five stars and I was intrigued with the synopsis.


message 23: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish There have been so many favorable reviews of this that I am going to now recommend everyone read it & make up their own minds. It didn't work for me, and so far no one's reviews have made me reassess my own take, but it is certainly a wonderful thing if this topic can be discussed in terms of art. That it didn't work for me doesn't bother me a bit, and it surely can't bother Whitehead.


message 24: by Carol (new)

Carol Trish wrote: "There have been so many favorable reviews of this that I am going to now recommend everyone read it & make up their own minds. It didn't work for me, and so far no one's reviews have made me reasse..."

Wouldn't Goodreads be boring if we all had the same opinions about what we read. I appreciate the diversity.


message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh yeah I agree with you Trish. So far nothing had made me change my mind about my honest opinion. Excellent review though!


message 26: by Trish (last edited Sep 04, 2016 08:14AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Well, Marcellina, your review was spot on in catching several of the major issues with this book. You were the one that pointed out to me how Cora was a kind of shadow character rather than a real one.


message 27: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish An NPR interview with Colson Whitehead by Terry Gross (Aug 8, 2016) goes some distance towards changing my attitude towards Whitehead, never having heard him "in person," as it were. I hear him now, and get where he is coming from.

Still don't think he managed it because any book that requires that much explanation (every review from major outlets I've seen) is not exactly hitting all the notes.

I will concede that perhaps I should be stepping outside my comfort range into science fiction/fantasy more often to see what makes the field artistic and appealing. Surely it has possibilities.


Elizabeth i will have to listen to the interview b/c i need the context. i had similar problems with this one- i kept thinking WHY. so much so that it yanked me out of the story many times (and it was already chaotic w/o the alternate history parts). we were kept so distanced from the characters that i kept saying out loud FIRST PERSON PLEASE. it was truly nettlesome.


message 29: by Trish (last edited Sep 04, 2016 08:17AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Elizabeth wrote: "i will have to listen to the interview b/c i need the context. i had similar problems with this one- i kept thinking WHY. so much so that it yanked me out of the story many times (and it was alread..."

One would imagine that the trauma of slavery was crisis enough, no? And it has been so long since anyone broke through to mainstream literature, or big literature really, with the story of slavery, which I think we all need revisiting in light of all that is going on in American society today, including Ta Nehisi Coates Atlantic article The Case for Reparations.

The Terry Gross interview went some way to mollifying me because Whitehead expressed his concern that he just mightn't be up to the task of sci-fi-ing this big moment (okay, let's be fair--a couple of centuries) in our history. But his work has definitely entered our consciousness, and our conversation. That is something big, and paradoxically, it may be down to Oprah rather than Whitehead. But all's fair...as long as we are talking about it.


Marybeth I'm about 160 pages in and wondering if I'm reading some sort of Harry Potter underdeveloped horror story. It's flatter than a 3 day old coke and not a quality slave narrative at all with developed characters.


Marybeth I do find it troubling that the novel is being dismissed by topic alone. There are few narratives I feel more important to American history and the craft of the 'great American novel' than slavery. This one just is at the kids table to Toni Morrison however.


message 32: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Marybeth wrote: "I do find it troubling that the novel is being dismissed by topic alone. There are few narratives I feel more important to American history and the craft of the 'great American novel' than slavery...."

Yes, I agree with you that it seems an insufficient novel. If the discussion could be whether not it is art, I feel we are on safer ground. I don't think any one of us do not think it an important topic.

Since reading Kathryn Schultz's review in the NewYorker, I have started reading a book she mentioned, Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, and I can see where Whitehead got his information. So he did some research and tried something pretty radical. Unfortunately I don't think it worked, but I admit that it almost doesn't matter now since everyone is reading and talking about this book. That is a good thing. I just fear that the mash-up thing needs too much explanation in his iteration, but I could be wrong.


message 33: by Mel (last edited Aug 27, 2016 12:11AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mel I agree with you on this one. The railroad as a metaphor didn't work at all for me. It felt like a hazy nightmare with surreal undertones, that served to diminish the plight of these enslaved people and the heroics of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and others that so bravely (and real-ly) risked everything. My worst thought was that there was an almost Disney-esque simulator ride feel to the whole concept. Whitehead's writing deserves the accolades, but not this imagined concept story.


message 34: by Trish (last edited Sep 04, 2016 08:20AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Mel wrote: "My worst thought was that there was an almost Disney-esque simulator ride feel to the whole concept. Whitehead's writing deserves the accolades, but not this imagined concept story..."

Exactly. Think Whitehead really confused genres and styles on this one...and I wasn't a fan of the Harry Potter atmosphere in parts. I wasn't a fan of the other parts, either, unfortunately. Boy, we must be pretty desperate for a novel on this subject to light upon this one as the defining one.


Elizabeth Trish wrote: "Mel wrote: "My worst thought was that there was an almost Disney-esque simulator ride feel to the whole concept. Whitehead's writing deserves the accolades, but not this imagined concept story..."
..."


trish- i know i already commented but i just want to say EXACTLY. mel, i agreed with your comments, too. it was gimmicky. slavery and gimmicky? i just can't.


message 36: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Elizabeth wrote: "trish- i know i already commented but i just want to say EXACTLY. mel, i agreed with your comments, too. it was gimmicky. slavery and gimmicky? i just can't. ..."

It's okay, Elizabeth. You can comment as much as you like. And I'm glad to hear we have another on our side. We're a minority, you realize.


Elizabeth Trish wrote: "Elizabeth wrote: "trish- i know i already commented but i just want to say EXACTLY. mel, i agreed with your comments, too. it was gimmicky. slavery and gimmicky? i just can't. ..."

It's okay, Eliz..."


about that...




message 38: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Heh, heh. That's good.


message 39: by [deleted user] (new)

Trish, et al., I am using a couple bits of this Whitehead interview in my own (critically tortured) review. I so agree with the Disney-esque, Harry Potter, *gimmicky* (best!) criticisms, but found it helpful to hear more of his own thinking on the surreal fantasy aspects as well as other historical liberties he took: http://www.thefader.com/2016/08/17/co.... Having read *The Fire Next Time* right after this last week, somehow, made me a tad more understanding, if not more convinced, of this work. Both authors know the threw lines have to go from Black Lives Matter back to Civil Rights back to the brutal reality of slavery. The realism of many of Whitehead's descriptions of conditions for Black slaves will be educational to many, and weaving in 20th-century examples of racism was clever, even with stilted characters and dialogue. Thanks!


Elizabeth Christy wrote: "Trish, et al., I am using a couple bits of this Whitehead interview in my own (critically tortured) review. I so agree with the Disney-esque, Harry Potter, *gimmicky* (best!) criticisms, but found ..."

thanks for the link, christy! i think the interview helped & had more info than his interview w/terry gross. have you posted your review yet? i did not see it on your goodreads page/bookshelves.


message 41: by Zach (new) - rated it 5 stars

Zach If you're reading fiction looking for historical accuracy then you missed the boat when we left the dock and we're cruisin on without you.


message 42: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Zach wrote: "If you're reading fiction looking for historical accuracy then you missed the boat when we left the dock and we're cruisin on without you."

Yes, you're right of course. And it would also be true that I should be able to find the "truths" about human nature I seek in any kind of literature, including sci-fi and fantasy, as long as it is written well.

I have a few facts now, having read some background histories after this, and I admit I wish this book had worked for me. But I found myself distrusting the author for the reasons detailed above, and...maybe? resenting him a little for what I didn't know and couldn't comprehend.

But despite all my failings, I actually, truly believe this was not great art. Not even close.


message 43: by Katie Windsor (new)

Katie Windsor yeah


message 44: by Cindy (new) - rated it 1 star

Cindy Exactly what I thought about this book.


message 45: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Christy wrote: "Trish, et al., I am using a couple bits of this Whitehead interview in my own (critically tortured) review. I so agree with the Disney-esque, Harry Potter, *gimmicky* (best!) criticisms, but found ..."

Christy, you should probably cut and paste this remark into your review space and forget the longer statement you are struggling with. This comment says something important about the reaching back through the 21st-20th-19th C to the beginning of distorted race relations in the U.S. No need to get studied about it.


message 46: by Tom (new) - rated it 1 star

Tom Stevenson Excellent review, Trish. Wish I would have read your review before wasting several hours reading it (well, most of it).


message 47: by Jon (new) - rated it 1 star

Jon Pahl Agreed...this book is a hackjob. Incomplete characters, incomplete research, incomplete sentences, incomplete gimmick. Thanks for your close reading of a few of the many technical flaws throughout. Needed a strong editor and about 2 more years in the sources....


message 48: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Jon wrote: "Agreed...this book is a hackjob. Incomplete characters, incomplete research, incomplete sentences, incomplete gimmick. Thanks for your close reading of a few of the many technical flaws throughout...."

Yes, too bad, but he's certainly gotten some mileage out of it. Maybe his next one will be better?


message 49: by Leo (last edited Jan 13, 2017 01:26PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Leo Walsh FYI -- Sounds like you read this as historically accurate. It isn't, nor was it meant to be. This is more "Gulliver's Travels" than "The Confessions of Nat Turner."

The states are metaphorical, representing ways that the underclasses have been served -- an abused -- in America. And while the focus is on slaves, a brutal institution, there's hints of the white underclass being abused and played through what I've read (I'm in the TN section right now).

For instance, the SC stuff was made up. The negro colony and efforts depicted at negro advancement never happened. The skyscraper and colored hospital never existed. Etc.

However, there is a kernel of truth here. The US government did use freed slaves to experiment on, typically as disease guinea pigs. Many are documented, with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where black men were intentionally effected with syphilis, being the most famous. And the depiction of eugenics, where negro and poor "white-trash" women were sterilized, accurate.

Nor was there weekly lynchings in the town square, as depicted in the NC sections. But the societal embrace of lynchings was accurate. As was the importing of poor whites from Scotland and Ireland as indentured servants, and turning them against the slaves. Who, ironically, they weren't better off than, and yet felt superior to.

Just for perspective.


message 50: by Trish (new) - rated it 1 star

Trish Leo wrote: "FYI -- Sounds like you read this as historically accurate. It isn't, nor was it meant to be. This is more "Gulliver's Travels" than "The Confessions of Nat Turner...."

Thanks, Leo. Yes, I read all the reviews and reports after it came out, suddenly, a month or two early and a day or two after I posted. I read an early advance copy.

I would have liked it better had I known he was going to get all sci-fi on me, but truth is, I'm an experienced reader and I read almost the whole thing without "getting" that he was intentionally "skewing the data," so to speak. Anything that requires that much explaining (every review I saw subsequently), has some serious issues, in my opinion.

But thanks. Sounds like you got the concept and liked the idea. I possibly could have liked it, had someone else done it. I don't think I like Whitehead's writing very much.


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