The Seasonal Reading Challenge discussion

GROUP READS > The Underground Railroad

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message 1: by SRC Moderator (new)

SRC Moderator | 4527 comments Mod
This is the discussion thread for the Summer 2017 Group Read The Underground Railroad. Please post your comments here. This thread is not restricted to those choosing this book for task 20.10, feel free to join in the discussion. Warning- spoilers ahead!

The requirement for task 20.10: You must participate in the book's discussion thread below with at least one post about the contents of the book or your reaction to the book after you have read the book.

message 2: by Diane (new)

Diane | 742 comments I was excited to see that this book was chosen as a seasonal read. I am surprised that I am the first one to review it here.

It is a re-imagining of history where the underground railroad is an actual railroad located under the soil of the South. It is certainly not an enjoyable topic, but Whitehead does an excellent job of portraying the lives of slaves and the violence and heartbreak they had to endure. The main story centers on Cora, an escaped slave.

Overall, I think the writing is excellent and the subject well-researched. My main complaint has to do with the detached way in which the story is told. I felt as though I was kept at arms length from the story and its characters instead of being immersed. I also felt that there was much room for additional character development and depth, particularly with some of the secondary characters.

message 3: by Coralie (new)

Coralie | 2041 comments I enjoyed this book, if not as much as expected. At times I got the feeling that the author was trying to get the reader to do some research to find out just how much was fact and how much fantasy. Although I found it lacking in emotion I suspect that was deliberate as it would be very easy to go too far in the opposite direction.

message 4: by Sara (new)

Sara (phantomswife) I liked, but did not love, this book. I did not like the idea of the railroad as being an actual physical one and felt that was done to minimize the role that concerned people played in getting slaves to safety and better lives. While I suspect that every single atrocity in the novel happened to some slave at some time, I found the heaping of these things onto one individual kept me from feeling the kind of emotional involvement I had expected to feel.

I could not help comparing this book to Roots, which I read back in the 70s and which made such an impression that I can still remember exact scenes. There was an attachment that brought actual tears in that novel. I cringed, but did not cry for Cora.

message 5: by Bea (new)

Bea | 3872 comments It was OK for me. I'm not really sure exactly why I chose this book over Killers of the Flower Moon, as I really was not very excited about reading another slave story either. Perhaps that fact alone set the tone for my reception of this book. Perhaps it is because the events in my own life are tragic right now (spouse dying) and thus this tragedy in history was not the right time for me. Perhaps it was because I was listening to this book rather than reading it and might have lost the thread a time or two. Whatever, I just did not connect well with this book. 2.5*

message 6: by Bridgett (new)

Bridgett (brikie) | 6 comments I'm so sorry to hear that your spouse is dying, Bea. I can only imagine how awful this time is for you. Best wishes for peace and healing.

message 7: by Sara (new)

Sara (phantomswife) I am also sorry that life is playing hardball with you right now, Bea. I whispered you a prayer.

message 8: by Bea (new)

Bea | 3872 comments Thanks, BriKie and Sara...I appreciate the responses.

message 9: by Tanya (new)

Tanya D (mtlbookworm) | 161 comments I read The Underground Railroad in a day, though I think if it wasn’t raining out and I wasn’t totally bored, it would have taken much longer. I found the book to be OK. It wasn’t as engaging as I expected it to be. There were so many characters it was hard to keep track, especially since some were mentioned only once or twice. I would have enjoyed the book a lot more had there been a touch more character development. Clearly what happened to Cesar and Lovey was horrible in ways we cannot imagine, and clearly this was meant to affect Cora deeply, yet to be completely honest it barely affected me as a reader. I found it hard to empathize, which is strange given that some truly gruesome atrocities occur.

Even at the end, Ollie with the horseshoe-shaped scar. As readers I think we were meant to recognize the fact that Ollie came from the same place as Sybil and may have known her, but my honest reaction was “so what?”. Maybe it was supposed to be significant to Cora, but it had no effect on me.

I gave the book 3 stars, because it was a quick read, and I really did find it creative that the author imagined an ACTUAL underground railroad. Overall I’m glad I read the book, but I don’t think I’d recommend it.

message 10: by Lois (new)

Lois | 1871 comments The alternate history aspect of this novel of the slavery era gives this book a unique twist, which I enjoyed very much. There are some anachronisms, the purpose of which I did not completely understand at times; an interesting view of different states’ various approaches to the managing the problems of slavery and freed former slaves; and, of course, the railroad—very cleverly reimagined. Yes, there were a lot of characters, and some of them were hard to know, but overall I thought it was well done and will be one of my memorable reads of the year.

message 11: by Sara (new)

Sara (phantomswife) I was bothered by the absence of a line between fantasy and reality here, particularly because I think such an important subject needs to be handled carefully. There were some strange laws in parts of NC, but the depiction of blacks being killed wholesale was inaccurate. There are too many real horrors in this subject and era to need to make up anything. It is the same with the Holocaust, which also requires no embellishment to be horrific.

message 12: by Brooke (new)

Brooke | 1419 comments Brooke TX

I wouldn't say that I enjoyed, or even particularly liked this book, but it was beautifully written. I can see why it won the awards it did, although I don't think the alternate history/magical realism elements were as successfully interwoven here as in, say, a Toni Morrison novel.

message 13: by Bluemoon (new)

Bluemoon (bluemoon286) | 1839 comments This book was just OK for me. I thought that the book as mentioned above was very disjointed for me. I also agree that it was told in a very impersonal way and I did not really connect with any of the characters. I thought that the idea was a good one I just wish the story had been told in a more linear and compassionate way.

message 14: by Nicole (last edited Jul 13, 2017 01:22PM) (new)

Nicole | 1314 comments I read a review (can't remember where) that mentioned that the detachment was to show the lack of humanity slaves felt. From that lens, I was able to better accept the distant and often times cruel, cold portrayal of events. We were meant to feel the unbearable discomfort of being detached from humanity and I feel it was very successful in that way.

message 15: by Dana (new)

Dana (read60) | 293 comments READ 60
I found this book to be a page turner although in a "this is awful but I can't look away" fashion. I was a little confused at times by the description of the actual railroad but since it fit into the story so well it was easy to fall into the fantasy. I must admit that it did lead
me into a search about the facts of the underground railroad and I was glad that it did.

message 16: by Trish (last edited Jul 30, 2017 07:30AM) (new)

Trish (trishhartuk) | 2462 comments trishhartuk

Well that was unremittingly grim. It's very well written, but I was unable to read it in one sitting as it was too painful, and while I made it in the end, I have no desire to ever read it again.

This is one of those books where you know that even the bits where things seem to be alright, they're all going to end up going hell in a handbasket. Plus, the people with any humanity all end up suffering (except, perhaps, Sam), while the monsters, for the most part, get off scot free

If I had to find some words to describe it (other than grim), I’d go with harrowing, and disbelief. I don’t know enough about the history of slavery in the US to know if what’s described about North Carolina was really as bad as it its been written (although I suspect it probably was), while South Carolina was just as nasty, but in a more "civilised" way.

The disbelief comes from the fact that this really happened in the “land of the free”. Yes, I know Britain was far from innocent in the history of slavery, but the way that the South embraced it and treated these people as property and less than human always hits me in the gut, as it were. I had the same reaction when I read Twelve Years a Slave, but at least that had what passes for a happy ending. This one - given how horror was plucked from what seemed like safety earlier in the book, I'm not hopeful that things improved after the "end".

Maybe I should have picked one of the other options for the group read - certainly from the lack of people commenting here, it looks like a lot of the other SRC members did just that.

message 17: by Cat (new)

Cat (cat_uk) | 2245 comments I enjoyed this one, and didn't mind the real train part too much - it allowed the author to explore the horrors of the different states treatment / reaction to slaves: a story without that would have too much of the travelling part I think.
I also liked the snippets following the different individuals in the story, and the pathos of what happened to Mabel.

Maybe it did suffer a little from the hyping by Oprah, but still, a really good book.

message 18: by Pamela (new)

Pamela (pamela3265) | 979 comments I got about 10% of the way, but had to put this on my did not finish list. I just couldn't continue reading about the horrors experienced by the slaves.

message 19: by Heather(Gibby) (last edited Aug 04, 2017 02:07PM) (new)

Heather(Gibby) (heather-gibby) | 855 comments I read this book when it first came out, but part of the story line as I remember, was allegorical and alluding to other human rights atrocities in American history in addition to the injustices done through slavery.

Cora observes these other moments in history as she is fleeing form her own slavery. for example she observes the hangings of people accused of supporting runaway slaves-this is an allusion to the Salem witch Trials. I don't have the book anymore, so I can't specifically look up my references, but there was also a town where there was forced sterilization , alluding to the time in American history where people who were deemed to be mentally defective were automatically sterilized.

The "real" railroad is a device to take the reader through America's abysmal track record with human rights.

message 20: by Nadine (new)

Nadine Jones People were hanged for helping escaping slaves, slaves were whipped and hanged, and black people were sterilized, so I'm not convinced that he's alluding to OTHER atrocities. I think he's taken all of the historical injustices heaped on black people and put them all in one book.

message 21: by Amy (new)

Amy | 76 comments I read this book as part of monthly friend book club that I am a part of. Historical Fiction has never been one of my favorite genres so I wasn't too excited to read this book.

My first impression was that it was OK. It was a very quick read and the book kept me engaged most of the time.

Things that kept this book from being great in my opinion:
1. Unlike some readers, I didn't like the fact that the author put an actual railroad underground. I would have rather this part of the story been a little more factual.
2. I think the author could have done a little better building some of the lesser characters. I would have liked to have known more about Royal.
3. I think the ending would have been okay if Cora's journey had not been so devastating. I really wanted to see her living a fulfilled life in the end although I can see with her character traits that maybe the author couldn't have fulfilled this.

This book wouldn't be on my top list of recommendations.

message 22: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne (perletwo) | 1627 comments There's certainly a great novel to be found in the story of the Underground Railroad, but I'm not sure this series of character-driven vignettes is it. I'm not sure a detail-rich scholarly nonfiction work wouldn't serve the subject matter better, really.

message 23: by Lagullande (last edited Aug 26, 2017 07:08AM) (new)

Lagullande | 399 comments I read this because it is on the longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize. Of course, I was already aware of it because of all the hype it has received, not to mention the other high profile literary prizes it has already won.

I enjoyed it but it isn't my favourite on the Booker list. I was completely absorbed initially, but then I started losing track (sorry, unintentional) of the different characters. And it felt in some of the later chapters that Colson Whitehead was describing Cora's situation but didn't give enough details for me to really grasp what was going on until afterwards. He didn't do this (or I didn't notice it) in the earlier chapters, so it threw me a bit.

The "real" railroad was interesting, but it made me wonder whether other elements of the books were "real", eg the varying attitudes of the different States, the existence of the Valentine Farm. When I have finished writing this, I will see if I can find anything online to help clarify this.

message 24: by Mhairi (new)

Mhairi | 358 comments I was quite intrigued by this book, given its status and the rave reviews, but I'm afraid I didn't enjoy it. It is undoubtedly well-written and the characters in particular are well-shaped, but I found it so shocking and upsetting that I was actually reluctant to keep reading it. I also found it a bit confusing in its representations, and I found myself, like others here, googling certain aspects of the book. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as a "good" read but I don't regret the time it took me to read it.

message 25: by Trish (new)

Trish (trishhartuk) | 2462 comments Suzanne wrote: "There's certainly a great novel to be found in the story of the Underground Railroad, but I'm not sure this series of character-driven vignettes is it. I'm not sure a detail-rich scholarly nonfiction work wouldn't serve the subject matter better, really. "

Now you mention it, I think you might be right.

message 26: by Rebekka (new)

Rebekka | 35 comments The story of this book captivated me, although it was a tough read for me, due to Whitehead’s rich vocabulary and English not being my first language. I think it is the first time I read a book about slavery in the U.S. and I can say I am ‘glad’ I did. It is good to know what happened. The detached style didn’t prevent me from getting emotionally involved. I felt anger at the injustice of the system and realized injustice still exists today in many forms. Even though some aspects of the story might be fantasy, it gave me a valuable impression of this period in history and the various opinions on slavery and black people in general.

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