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The Underground Railroad
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2017 archive > February group read discussion: The Underground Railroad

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Juanita (juanitav) | 723 comments Here we can discuss our group read for the month: The Underground Railroad.

Are you enjoying it?
Is it what you expected?
Is it making you as angry as it makes me?

Please use spoiler tags if you are sharing any plot related surprises.

Posts should be exclusively about this book.

When you've finished, be sure to post in the February challenge: I finished! thread.


message 2: by Nadine (last edited Feb 02, 2017 07:18AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nadine Jones | 5255 comments Mod
I am super excited to be reading the monthly book with you all! This is the first time it's worked out for me.

I am about 1/3 of the way in, and I don't know if I can say I'm "enjoying" it, but I think it is fantastic and I resent the need to put it down and do all my other life stuff. Each night after work I tell my kids: "I just want to go to bed and read my book," (but of course I can't, I have to make dinner and help with homework and walk the dogs and empty the dishwasher and ugh! I need more book-time!)

I think having read Kindred a few years ago prepped me a little bit for the atrocities. Although Whitehead is definitely not pulling his punches.


Tara Bates | 1008 comments I'm really hoping to get this from the library but if not I'll probably purchase, but I'll wait a couple weeks in case my library holds work out.


Danielle (danimgill) | 45 comments Nadine, this is the first month it's worked out for me as well! I literally just got the ebook in from the library yesterday after being on hold for two months.

I have to work my way through Homegoing and Underground Airlines first (they're due sooner) but thematically I think I'm hitting a lot of the same notes that I'll get to with The Underground Railroad. I'm excited to see if it lives up to all the hype it got when it came out.

How is the writing style? I've seen people saying it takes time to get used to.


Nadine Jones | 5255 comments Mod
I've seen that in a lot of reviews too, but I'm not sure what they're referring to. I sat down to read the first page and got sucked right in. I find it very readable. There is a bit of emotional distance to the narrative, but I guess I was expecting that since Zone One was the same. It's NOT written like ZO at all other than that. This is very chronological and direct, nothing hidden from the reader (well, not yet anyway).


Gurleen | 8 comments got the book. looking forward to starting it over this weekend.


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Brooke | 272 comments I just ordered the book as well. I should have it by the end of next week, so hopefully I'll be at a point with my other titles that I can begin that one shortly after I get it.


Shalayne | 9 comments Got the book at the library today, going to start it tonight!


Emily | 3 comments I'm listening to the audiobook for my 25-minute ride home each day.
So far, I'm really enjoying it. The writing (even though I'm listening, not reading) is so well-crafted and beautiful.


message 10: by Shamitha (new)

Shamitha Surendran | 1 comments I am still finishing up my other book, so waiting to start this... I will order it in a day or so..


Chandie (chandies) | 245 comments I don't think the writing style is too hard to get into.

I read the first three chapters during my lunch period yesterday and then forgot the book in my classroom or I may have stayed up reading it because I'm really enjoyin git.


message 12: by Nicole (last edited Feb 03, 2017 06:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nicole Sterling | 153 comments I'm listening to it through Scribd. For those of you who are hoping it comes in from the library so that you don't have to purchase it, you might look into Scribd. I just happened upon it a couple weeks ago, and for $8.99/month, you get three e-books and an audiobook each month. You're still paying for it, but not as much as you would by itself. I have found a lot of my challenge books on the site, so I have really been taking advantage of it to help me through my list. They don't have The Underground Railroad available as a book, but they do have it as an audiobook. It's narrated by Bahni Turpin and she is doing a fabulous job, in my opinion. I'm about 1/4 of the way through it, and really enjoying listening to her read it, even if the material is not itself enjoyable.

I do like the book, but I hate what has happened to the characters, and I'm sure I'll hate much of what is to come. I am hoping for a happy ending, but I don't know if we'll get it, and even if we do, there's still so much horror and sadness in their lives up until this point that I think it would be hard to ever really shake loose of that and have a happy life.

Edited to add: If you get the audio version, those people who might have a problem with the writing style don't have to worry about it. I can tell by listening how it is written, but Bahni is gliding right through with all the inflections and different styles of speech that are present in the book. She makes it easy to listen to, but I can understand why it might take a little time to get used to reading it written like that, especially if you haven't been around that way of speaking much in your life.


Lindsay | 26 comments Nadine wrote: "I've seen that in a lot of reviews too, but I'm not sure what they're referring to. I sat down to read the first page and got sucked right in. I find it very readable. There is a bit of emotional d..."
The book is "sort of" chronological. The writing style with the back and forth between characters' information and the story was difficult for me at times. I would of been able to get through this a lot faster if it was just written as a straight story.


message 14: by Alisia (last edited Feb 05, 2017 11:47AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alisia (4thhouseontheleft) | 55 comments Nadine wrote: "I've seen that in a lot of reviews too, but I'm not sure what they're referring to. I sat down to read the first page and got sucked right in. I find it very readable. There is a bit of emotional d..."

There are a few spots that it seems to be not completely chronological. For example, Ridgeway's chapter - it helped me to flip back to page 41 and reread that small section, where he first makes an appearance in the book.

I'm about 1/4 of the way into the book, and really like it.


Nikki (ninmin30) | 49 comments I finished the book!!!!

I really enjoyed it. However, it was very hard to read. I think I need a couple light and fluffy reads before I go into anything else with a hard subject matter. The last two books really took it out of me.

As much as I enjoyed it, some parts just made me so sad. (view spoiler) But that's the part of the book that makes it so good. The truth just hits you in the face and you have to deal with it.


Nadine Jones | 5255 comments Mod
I finished! That was powerful! I'll have to mull things over a bit before I finish my review, but I'm pretty sure I'm a Colson Whitehead fan now (which I wasn't really last year after reading Zone One).

I'm using this for "book about a difficult topic" since I already used a book for "author of color" (I read Akata Witch last month, because it's one of the 41 books I vowed to myself that I would read this year, because it's been on my tbr for a while, and when I finished I figured I might as well use it for the challenge and that was the only category I could find).

Juanita, what was it about the ending that you were unhappy about? Quite a few things surprised me about the ending, but the entire thing was one surprise after another anyway, so I guess it was just that kind of book. Which is part of what made it so compelling for me: never knew what was going to come next, just like real life.


Thegirlintheafternoon Nicole wrote: "I'm listening to it through Scribd. For those of you who are hoping it comes in from the library so that you don't have to purchase it, you might look into Scribd. I just happened upon it a couple ..."

Oooooh, I didn't know Bahni Turpin did this narration! She is a GREAT performer.


Juanita (juanitav) | 723 comments Here's my big question, which was not clear for me, (view spoiler)


Nadine Jones | 5255 comments Mod
(view spoiler)

Whitehead seems fond of leaving his books very open-ended at the end, so I was sort of expecting a non-ending ending.


Nicola Hall I've literally just finished this book ... I flew through it!

Are you enjoying it?

I enjoyed it very much ... It's a beautiful narrative that shares hope even when it seems lost and it kept me on my toes right to the last page ... I cried and rejoiced along with Cora! I think this is a very hopeful story of an abominable time in the History of the world.

Is it what you expected?

Not really ... I thought it might be more along the lines of Slave Narratives such as 12 Years a Slave. However I was pleasantly surprised that it deals with other aspects of slavery in more detail...

Does it make you as angry as it makes me?

It doesn't make me angry really, it frustrates me to a point of eager interest. I assume that's the Historian in me because whenever I read stuff like this it makes me want to find out more and more about the topic...


message 21: by Nadine (last edited Feb 05, 2017 08:11PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nadine Jones | 5255 comments Mod
There are two interviews with Colson Whitehead on NPR about this book. First is with Terry Gross on Fresh Air:
Fresh Air with Colson Whitehead

Second is with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition:
Weekend Edition with Colson Whitehead

The Terry Gross interview was pretty long and I haven't read the entire thing. The Scott Simon interview includes this gem, which I think explains a lot of how the book is structured:
" I thought, well, what if each state that our protagonist goes through as he or she travels north, each state is a different state of American possibility ... So that, you know, initial whimsical choice to play with the metaphor [of an actual underground train] allowed me to mix and match and explore different areas of American history." That explained a lot for me about why he made the choices he made to present a variety of alternate histories and things happening outside the time that they actually happened.


Antonia E Iacampo | 15 comments I guess I'm the odd man out. I'm not really caring for this book at all, though I'm not entirely sure why yet. I think it is the way the characters are written...the author really goes to a lot of effort to explain the characters and their motivations and all that, but it doesn't feel organic at all. I want to "feel' the characters, not have them explained at me, which is the vibe I'm getting.

"Are you enjoying the book" - No, not really. Probably wouldn't finish if it wasn't for this group read. I'm struggling with the writing style, and because of that I can't get into the subject matter, which then makes me feel guilty.

"Is it what you expected" - Again, not not really. I thought this was non-fiction when I picked it up.

"Is it making you angry" - More depressed than angry. It isn't as if this is new information, and living in the south, you can still see this attitude (subdued and filtered by time) on a daily basis.


Mindy Cook (isadoragirl) | 15 comments I recently started reading it and so far I'm having a hard time getting into it. I think I even started a new chapter but I'm not positive because I just don't care. Of course, I've been reading Anne of Green Gables for my book that's sure to bring me joy (or whatever that subject is titled). I know this book will not bring me joy, but Anne is full of joy! LOL, so yes, I'm having a hard time but I'm determined to read it. Will check back in another week.


Nadine Jones | 5255 comments Mod
Antonia E Iacampo wrote: "I guess I'm the odd man out. I'm not really caring for this book at all, though I'm not entirely sure why yet. I think it is the way the characters are written...the author really goes to a lot of ..."

based on the general reviews on Goodreads, I think you might be in the majority. I loved this book, gave it 5 stars, but not everyone loved it!


Antonia E Iacampo | 15 comments I just finished this last night. While I didn't warm to the book any more than my original review, I did like the way the timeline was arranged. I really feel like this could have been a magnificent book, but the author didn't quite know how to get it there.


message 26: by Jule (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jule Monnens (kaferlily) | 38 comments Have this one on hold from the library. Based on the amazon reviews, I'm trying to approach it from an unbiased perspective. If I get the book before the end of the month, I'll try reading it. At my age, I'm unwilling to spend time on books I don't like when there are so many to choose from.


Kelly | 24 comments Juanita wrote: "Here's my big question, which was not clear for me, [spoilers removed]"

OMG! I didn't even consider that. (view spoiler)

My favorite type of novels are the ones that pique my curiosity of true events; overall this made me want to learn more about the parts of American history that are often avoided in school. I had no idea of the level of brutality. Does anyone have a suggestion for non-fiction?

Well done Colson Whitehead . 4 stars from me.


Abigail Smith | 66 comments Juanita wrote: "Here's my big question, which was not clear for me, [spoilers removed]"

I really like that interpretation, Juanita. Not the one I came to but very interesting to ponder. (view spoiler) I tend to love endings like this one that leave a little to each own's analysis.

Ultimately, I found the novel difficult to read but important. I think it will stay with me for a while.


Juanita (juanitav) | 723 comments Kelly wrote: "overall this made me want to learn more about the parts of American history that are often avoided in school. I had no idea of the level of brutality. Does anyone have a suggestion for non-fiction?"

It's fiction but I really enjoyed The Invention of Wings. It's based on a real-life abolitionist though it's fictionalized story of her life. It crosses between the privileged white slave "owner" and the slave's experiences and narratives. And, it's from the masterful Sue Monk Kidd.

I know others who have read 12 Years a Slave and Other Slave Narratives, which is nonfiction.


Kelly | 24 comments Juanita wrote: "Kelly wrote: "overall this made me want to learn more about the parts of American history that are often avoided in school. I had no idea of the level of brutality. Does anyone have a suggestion fo..."

Thanks, Juanita. I have liked other novels by Sue Monk Kidd so I will check that out. I'm trying to decide whether or not I fell I can stomach 12 Years a Slave and Other Slave Narratives and pretty much any other book about the cruelty of humans. I may have to take a couple months to read other things and come back to this topic.

Abigail wrote: I really like that interpretation, Juanita. Not the one I came to but very interesting to ponder. [spoilers ..."

My thoughts on the ending are very much in line with your feelings, Abigail. You expressed it better than I could have!


message 31: by Aparajita (new) - added it

Aparajita Raychaudhury (aparajir) | 24 comments I started reading it last night, and am about a quarter way through. Till now, I haven't really enjoyed it.

May be I am unduly biased by the first GoodReads review of the book I read, but I agree with that review 100℅ - the narrative style just can't get me to care about Cora. I think I'll only be mildly annoyed if it turns out she's captured and brutally punished at the end, not devastated. Or somewhat sad. Or even frustrated.

The emotional distance just doesn't work for me. I'm neither black nor American, so I already have a certain emotional distance from the entire issue - so the impersonal narrative just puts me in the 'history is full of sh*t, so what' zone. I'm not angered by the brutality or touched by the kindness of people in the story - only mildly curious about how it'll turn out ...

(I can see why it works for many people though. If this was about one of the historical issues I'm emotionally vested in, I could have found the emotional distance of an impersonal narrative perfect)


Vanessa (effoff_imreading) | 18 comments Almost done! I have been enjoying the book, mostly because I am rooting for Cora and wanting to see her reach freedom. But I did have to put it down a few times and read something else due to the brutality.


message 33: by Tara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tara Bates | 1008 comments Ordered today, should be here by Valentine's Day! I looked at my library holds and I'm something like 32nd in line with 2 copies! So I bit the bullet!


Juanita (juanitav) | 723 comments Tara wrote: "Ordered today, should be here by Valentine's Day! I looked at my library holds and I'm something like 32nd in line with 2 copies! So I bit the bullet!"

I requested it from my library in December and there were still 21 people ahead of me as of last week when I ordered it.


Nadine Jones | 5255 comments Mod
Kelly wrote: "... I think Cora's emotional distance from the reader supports her character more than reading about all of her feelings would. I wouldn't expect someone who has seen and experienced Cora's life to be completely transparent and effusive when telling their story...."

Yes! I agree, that's how I felt about her too!! In part, the emotional distance is just Whitehead's style. But also, in this book, that IS Cora. She has shielded herself from the years and years of pain.

As for non-fiction, I've got my eyes on Twelve Years a Slave - it's free from Gutenberg! But I've got about 100 other books I need to read first.

I think it's really fascinating and maybe sometimes overlooked that Whitehead took several different eras from American History and crammed them all into this book. Sort of like that old attraction at DisneyWorld Epcot where you walk through and see a scene from a different time in each "room" (is that still there? I don't think it is.) - Cora sees a different "scene" each time she exits from the railroad. That really kept me off-balance the entire time, not just from fear for her, but also because I never quite knew what was true history and what was an "alternate history." That off-kilter sensation added to the story for me.

Okay I've reread this three times and I don't think any of this is a spoiler - if someone thinks it is, please just tell me and I'll get it behind spoiler tags!


message 36: by Tara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tara Bates | 1008 comments Juanita I got on the list in dec too for 3 things, physical book (32 on 2 books), ebook (28 idk how many) and audiobook (17 on 1). It's funny because I hadn't even heard of it so it's crazy to me how popular it is!
Nadine I haven't started it so maybe it'll be spoiler-ish for ppl who have but I don't find that has any spoilers from my pov.


Alisia (4thhouseontheleft) | 55 comments Just finished it today!

I don't mind Colson Whitehead's writing style, in fact, I quite liked it. And I felt his style lended itself well to the character; Cora does not strike me as someone who would be effusive with her thoughts and feelings.

I loved how the story started off in a more traditional way, staying true to history of what slavery was like, and then veered into the realm of alternative history. (view spoiler)

Are you enjoying it?
Enjoy isn't quite the right word, but I am giving it 5 stars, and my notebook is filled with quotes from the book!

Is it what you expected?
Yes and No. I went to an author's forum with Colson Whitehead a few months ago where he did a reading from the book, so I knew that he gave the UR a literal interpretation. I didn't realize how drastically different each Southern state would be until I got to the South Carolina chapter.

Is it making you as angry as it made me?
Something Colson writes at the very end of the novel was a very clear reminder of how the legacy of slavery continues to impact race relations and our society's institutions today. And that we still haven't done what should be done to make things right. So it made me angry in a positive way, as a constant reminder that my country still has a long way to go to right the wrongs of the past. And that as a cishet white person, I need to be aware of my privilege.

Last year, I read The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which was published in The Atlantic in June 2014, which I highly recommend reading after novels like UR.


Ashley | 73 comments I started reading it last night. I'm not yet even 40 pages in yet, so it's hard to really have too much of an opinion yet. However, my initial reaction is that Cora sure is emotionless. I hope she's not a flat character!

I'm beyond the point of this subject matter making me angry since I've grown up reading about it, and as an African American have made it a point to be really study the unfortunate reality of the slavery era. I recently visited the new Smithsonian museum of African American history, and it made me quite sad.


Rachel A. (abyssallibrarian) | 617 comments I've just started reading it today, and only made it 50 pages in. I was hoping to read a bit more by the end of the day, but I'm too tired to concentrate properly. I'm having a bit of trouble getting into the style so far because of the emotionally distant style. In terms of what I expected, I don't know. I didn't expect very much from it since I didn't really know too much about the book, but I had a feeling I'd have a hard time getting into it.

The subject matter does not make me angry either since it is nothing new to me. For one thing, I read The Book of Negroes last year, and for another, I have learned quite a bit about slavery and the underground railroad in school. My class studied Underground to Canada sometime in elementary school, so the subject matter here is definitely not new to me.


message 40: by Shamitha (new)

Shamitha Surendran | 1 comments I am finding it very difficult to get into it.. and I am on the verge of just letting it go...I am not getting any feelings towards Cora or am not able to connect to her which is making it tough...


Sarah (sarahpotempa) | 14 comments I really enjoyed the book. I learned some things about the Underground Railroad, and plantations I didn't know. I found the book easy to read. There were many sad parts, and parts that to me seemed to jump around toward the end. The characters were relatable even though I couldn't even imagine what they were going through. Overall I thought it to be a good book.


Addie Dehart | 36 comments . I was excited to read this book because it had received such high praise from a wide variety of sources. Sadly I was underwhelmed. I liked it and found the early sections taking place in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina to be highly enaging but towards the middle to end, it lagged for me. I think ultimately the reason it took me so long to read the book is because I found it hard to connect and care about Cora. Also all the secondary characters were completely forgettable. I tried to keep them straight in my head but I couldn't. I liked the book and was glad I read it, I just wished the characters were more thoroughly developed.


message 43: by Linda (new) - added it

Linda McLaughlin (lindamclaughlin) I noticed the emotional distance, too, but I'm glad for it. Otherwise, much of what happens would be too hard to read. I wouldn't say that I'm enjoying it, but I'm finding it interesting and easy to read, and Yes, it's making me angry.

Nadine wrote: "I've seen that in a lot of reviews too, but I'm not sure what they're referring to. I sat down to read the first page and got sucked right in. I find it very readable. There is a bit of emotional distance"


Rachel Benoit (theliteraryluminary) I actually read this for last year's challenge for the "a book from Oprah's book club" category, and I've been enjoying keeping up with everyone's commentary here! This is definitely not the type of the book I would pick up of my own accord, but I thought it was a good read. I didn't like the sometimes broken continuity of the timeline, but I did like the concept of each state being a specific experience.

I thought I was going crazy when I started reading it because I hadn't read anything about the underground railroad since high school, and I had learned that there was no literal railroad. I didn't even consider the idea that he was using it as a literary device until I did some google research. Oprah also did do some interviews with Colson Whitehead, which you can find on YouTube.

As an American who has grown up in a primarily white community, I think this was an important read for me. It made me experience a lot of emotions, including anger, sadness, and even guilt at this part of our country's history. I gave it 4/5 stars.


Ashley | 73 comments Wow. I just finished the South Carolina chapter. I was up all night with the baby, and when I did drift to sleep, this book often came back to my spirit. I want to discuss what others think about this chapter!

(view spoiler)


Nadine Jones | 5255 comments Mod
Ashley wrote: "Wow. I just finished the South Carolina chapter. I was up all night with the baby, and when I did drift to sleep, this book often came back to my spirit. I want to discuss what others think about t..."

This book got into my dreams while I was reading it.

(view spoiler)


Pinchy's Pages (Jenn Harrison) (princesspinchy) | 21 comments I loved it! I had to take breaks because Whitehead's writing was intense.

I liked how he wrote from other character's perspective, even if it didn't overlap in the story. I cried at the end of Ceasar's chapter. I didn't like the flashback within a flashback within a flashback when we met Royal. But other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Danielle (danimgill) | 45 comments I am now halfway through this book (thank you, snowstorm yesterday that shut down my office) and I have to say I like the writing style a lot. Personally I tend to veer away from 1st person POV if I can help it so maybe I'm biased, but I like the emotional distance. And it makes so much sense for Cora's character too.

I like the imagery of the literal railroad but I did have to chuckle when it came up because it took child me sooooo long to grasp that in reality it was not a real train.

I have to say, I'm not feeling particularly angry since none of the atrocities are surprising to me given the history I've studied but damn, that's kind of depressing in and of itself isn't it?


Rachel A. (abyssallibrarian) | 617 comments This book is taking me much, much longer to read than I expected. Normally I can read a book of this size (only 300 pages) in 2-3 days, but by the end of the third day, I'm only about 50% of the way through.

It took me quite a while to get into the style, and although it still is growing on me, I liked the sections I read today (South Carolina, mostly) a lot more than I liked the beginning. It is quite a dense book, and sometimes I don't like how it throws in new characters with little context until after they've been in for a few pages. It can be a bit confusing for me, but that may just be because I'm reading while kind of tired.


Jessi | 24 comments I really enjoyed this book. It is such a heavy, emotional topic that it is often hard for me to process really accurate fiction because it just becomes too much. I liked that Whitehead (view spoiler)

I also liked the ending. I definitely felt that it could be (view spoiler)

I was NOT happy with the storyline of (view spoiler)

All in all I'm glad I read this even though it definitely something that is out of my comfort zone.


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