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The Underground Railroad
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October 2016: Historical Fiction > Underground Railroad/Whitehead - 3 stars

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Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments I've been wavering on my rating for this book . . .and that's because it felt like an uneven effort to me. I was engaged by the book, most of the time, but there were some choices Whitehead made that I just didn't understand.

The story revolves around a main character, Cora, a slave, and does a very good job of painting the picture of the abysmal hopelessness of being a slave. Cora ends up running away, and most of the book focuses on her story, but it is interspersed with short chapters about other characters or historical incidents as well.

The approach to intersperse Cora's story with these short chapters didn't really bother me, but I don't think it enhanced the story or was a necessary structural element. I suspect some readers won't like it. I didn't mind it, but I did feel like it made me feel a bit arms length from Cora's story which is the emotional heart of the book. Just as I was starting to feel her pain, the story would stop, and the author takes us elsewhere.

My second issue is I didn't find the characters to be especially well developed. The scenes are written well, and you can picture the settings. But most of the characters are not fleshed out well enough to deeply care about them. Some are barely sketched out at all. People are laying down their lives to help Cora, and yet, with few exceptions, you don't feel like you get to know them well enough to really care. I was rooting for Cora, but more because the horrific situations of slavery she had to endure are so awful that any human would cringe at thought of them than because I really felt empathy for her inner feelings.

My final issue with the book is the Underground Railroad itself. It's an actual railroad. Fine, I can see that as a literary choice, but I didn't understand it at all. It didn't make the book more powerful. It didn't really illuminate the actual underground railroad is some way. It seemed pointless to inject this element of magical realism. It simply didn't add anything. On the flip side, it didn't subtract much either . . .it was described in a believable way, but the sections referencing it were some of my least favorite.

I really wavered between a 3 and a 4 star rating because there were some very powerful sections. Before Cora runs away, I found the entire initial portion about her life on her owner's property to be well done. There were several other sections that are truly excellent. I like the author's writing style a lot, and I actually would be enthusiastic about trying another book by him. All in all though, I don't think this book will stand out to me as memorable.


Denizen (den13) | 1138 comments Ahhh, the first tepid review. It's not at the top of my list right now so plenty of time to watch for more reactions.

I'm looking forward to seeing how your f2f bookclub reacts.


Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments Denizen wrote: "Ahhh, the first tepid review. It's not at the top of my list right now so plenty of time to watch for more reactions.

I'm looking forward to seeing how your f2f bookclub reacts."


I will definitely keep you posted. I'm very curious - - my guess is that they are going to like it a lot. But I will absolutely report back after Thursday!


Jennifer P. Pope (jenjunum) | 902 comments Hm, very interesting.


Booknblues | 5793 comments I had a feeling that you wouldn't love this book.

Having read some interviews with the author, I know that his starting point with the book was a real underground railroad and since that is where he started it makes sense.


Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments Lol, it does?

I don't know much about the creative process, but it seems as though you can start with an idea, and that might lead you to your story . . .but the original idea may or may not be working in service of the story that emerges.

I don't think the literal underground railroad hurt the story. I just don't think it enhanced it in any way, or really had a purposr.


Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments But you were right BnB . . .I didn't love it. Loved some aspects of it, but not the whole. Did you review it? Oddly, I can't find your review . . .we are friends on here right? I hope!


Booknblues | 5793 comments It is one of the many I read, but didn't review. I may get to it yet, but there is no guarantee.

I think that the use of the real railroad easily lends itself to the movement of one alternate history after another. Each alternate history revealing a dimension of African-American history.


Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments Booknblues wrote: "It is one of the many I read, but didn't review. I may get to it yet, but there is no guarantee.

I think that the use of the real railroad easily lends itself to the movement of one alternate his..."


Ahhh, you make a good point here. I see what you are saying . . .


Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments So my book club met today to discuss Underground Railroad. six of us were there. The person who seemed to enjoy it most a) didn't finish it and b) recognized and appreciated the magical realism elements much more than the rest of us. Two others really had a similar reaction to mine . . .liked the use of language, was engaged for much of the story, but thought the character development was very weak. And I would say two people liked it less than I did . . .one really took issue with the structure. The other with the magical realism components.


Susie | 4488 comments Hm. I think I might do the same as Denizen and wait a while.


Regina Lindsey | 1005 comments Okay....this does not bode well for me. I was really excited to read this but our tastes are so similar on fiction, especially when it comes to character development, that I'm seriously rethinking this. In fact, I think the only times we haven't reacted similarly is on HF when I've taken great exception to the way an author presents some sort of historical detail in a way I take issue with like in The True Story of Hansel and Gretel when the author didn't include an author's note on a detail of the story that was so outrageous and many people accepted it as fact. I'd be interested to hear what you think my reaction to this would be. #toomanybookssolittletime


Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments Regina wrote: "Okay....this does not bode well for me. I was really excited to read this but our tastes are so similar on fiction, especially when it comes to character development, that I'm seriously rethinking ..."

If you go into it thinking it is going to be historical fiction (as I did), I think you will be sorely disappointed. If you go into it realizing it is magical realism with historical elements, I think you might be a lot happier with it.

So interesting what you say about The True Story of Hansel and Gretel. Two people in my book club were actually not clear that the underground railroad didn't involve an actual train, so when that element presented itself in this book, they didn't recognize it as fantastical. They were skeptical, but unsure. And if you don't recognize that, then the rest of the book is truly going to be a mystery. Of course, you would recognize that, but I do think the lack of author notes is an issue as well.

The character development is next to non existent so I personally think you aren't going to be a fan . . .but now I kinda want you to read it to see if I am right! I did find the writing to be enjoyable to read - - I wasn't bored and some sections were quite well done. So it isn't as though you'd be reading a boring book. It's just at the end, you pretty much feel way less than one should when reading a story of horrible atrocities.


Regina Lindsey | 1005 comments Anita wrote: "Regina wrote: "Okay....this does not bode well for me. I was really excited to read this but our tastes are so similar on fiction, especially when it comes to character development, that I'm seriou..."

LOL. Well, as long as it isn't as bad as The Emperor's Children I might keep on the radar just for you. :-)

Oh! That's interesting about the members of your club. Funny, I just assume everyone knows the name was figurative. I guess I shouldn't be surprised but I am.


message 15: by Book Concierge (last edited Oct 23, 2016 08:14AM) (new)

Book Concierge (tessabookconcierge) | 5813 comments Regina wrote: "Oh! That's interesting about the members of your club. Funny, I just assume everyone knows the name was figurative. I guess I shouldn't be surprised but I am. ..."

I remember reading a comment by a woman who read one of the "left behind" novels to the effect that "I had no idea it would be like this!" Hmmm... the "left behind" series is FICTION.


Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments Regina wrote: "Anita wrote: "Regina wrote: "Okay....this does not bode well for me. I was really excited to read this but our tastes are so similar on fiction, especially when it comes to character development, t..."

Definitely not even remotely close to as bad as The Emperor's Children! It's definitely more enjoyable.

I was surprised about people in my book group too - - they are pretty well educated - - but I think people just don't remember their history classes well or something.


Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments Book Concierge wrote: "Regina wrote: "Oh! That's interesting about the members of your club. Funny, I just assume everyone knows the name was figurative. I guess I shouldn't be surprised but I am. ..."

I remember readin..."


Yikes!!


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