Hannah Greendale's Reviews > The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
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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.
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Reading Progress

February 15, 2017 – Started Reading
February 15, 2017 – Shelved
February 16, 2017 – Finished Reading
February 18, 2017 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
April 10, 2017 – Shelved as: pulitzer-prize
July 26, 2017 – Shelved as: booker-prize-nominee
October 24, 2017 – Shelved as: national-book-award-winner
November 27, 2017 – Shelved as: national-book-award-nominee

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by Choko (new)

Choko Another wonderful review, Hannah! It sounds like something I would like to read.

Hannah Greendale @Choko: Thank you. I hope you do pick this book up. I had no idea what to expect going in and was completely moved by some of the fundamental messages woven throughout the narrative.

Cheri Terrific review, Hannah, my brother sent me a copy of this book from this year's Miami Book Fair, so I will read this eventually. Your review is encouraging!

Hannah Greendale @Cheri: Thank you so much. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. :)

message 5: by Linda (new) - added it

Linda Great review, Hannah! I've put this on my tbr

Hannah Greendale @Linda: Thanks! I'm glad to have played a part - however small - in helping this book find its way to your TBR.

Candace Wonderful review, Hannah! :)

Hannah Greendale @Candace: Thank you. :)

message 9: by Joe (new)

Joe Valdez Wonderful review, Hannah. This seems like a novel that would've been written long, long ago, with the same title even. I guess in that sense it's overdue. American genocide and race are subjects that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

Hannah Greendale @Joe Valdez: Thank you for the compliment. I agree with you, and I could easily see this book replacing required reading in high school curriculum; in fact, I think it would be more accessible to young readers than some of the books on slavery that teens are still being forced to read. I think people will be talking about this book and learning from this book for a long time to come.

message 11: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Lovely review, Hannah!

Hannah Greendale @Melissa: Thank you!

message 13: by PorshaJo (new)

PorshaJo Great review Hannah! I'll be interested to see how this compares to Homegoing for you (see your reading it now). I have been hesitant on this one due to a few things. A few less than stellar reviews, heard the author talk and that was not a good talk, and because I loved Homegoing. Thought they might be too similar. Interested in your thought on that one.

Hannah Greendale @PorshaJo: I finished Homegoing and will be writing and posting a review later today. To give you a short answer: The Underground Railroad outshines Homegoing by a landslide. I can easily understand how, from a surface level, the books seem similar, but they're both very different. I highly recommend reading The Underground Railroad.

message 15: by Sumit (new) - added it

Sumit RK Superb Review, Hannah!

Hannah Greendale @SumitRK: Thank you!

message 17: by Mala (new) - added it

Mala Naidoo I always turn to your excellent reviews Hannah, thank you, this is on my must read list.

Hannah Greendale @Mala: That's so kind of you to say. Thank you. This book is definitely a must read.

message 19: by Melissa (new) - added it

Melissa Crytzer Fry This (and Lincoln in the Bardo are on my to-read list. Given your reviews, I might need to bump them up to the 2017 "Santa wish list" I've begun. Ha ha ha.

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