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Group Read Discussions > August 2018-- The Underground Railroad *SPOILERS*

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message 1: by Jasmine, Gatekeeper of Giveaways. (new)

Jasmine | 1236 comments Mod
The book picked by our group to read for August 2018 was The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This is the spoilers thread.


message 2: by Denise (new)

Denise Mullins | 292 comments As a retired middle school teacher who frequently had to read research projects involving the Underground Railroad, I recall groaning when students mentioned purchasing tickets to board the train. So when I read the author's use of a literal railroad as opposed to a metaphoric one, I was very disappointed. With that, Whitehead destroyed any credibility he hoped to garner regarding his research into the plight of slaves attempting their escape to freedom.
I also wondered if the ending was meant to be open ended; heading down to Missouri seemed like a very chancy move for Cora and her companions with the compromise in effect.


message 3: by Harry (new)

Harry Miller | 33 comments I have enjoyed and finished the book. As I said in the 'no spoilers' thread, I found the writing very taut and powerful, and I was almost induced by it to come around to accepting non-grammatical sentences, but it turns out I still don't like most of them.

I have no complaint about the book's 'enhanced-historical' scheme by which individual states of the Union are used as settings for various aspects of race relations, such as South Carolina for paternalistic and exploitative, North Carolina for violently segregationist, Indiana for precariously utopian, and Tennessee for -- actually, I wasn't sure what's supposed to be going on in Tennessee.

In the middle of the book, I lost patience with the inserted chapters named for characters, which, although they serve the purpose of revealing the characters' fates, always seemed to me to break the momentum of the story.

The deeper meaning of the book that I perceive, aside from its value as a meditation on race and America, centers around Mabel. (The chapter on Mabel is an exception to the above criticism.) Abandoning her escape attempt to return to her daughter, Mabel knows that she is sacrificing her freedom. Dying before she is able to return, she ends up achieving her freedom, for she passes beyond the reach of her oppressors. Since her body is never recovered, furthermore, her escape via death is believed by those she leaves behind to be an escape in life, resented, for different reasons, by daughter Cora and slavecatcher Ridgeway. The former, in spite of her resentment, becomes free; the latter, obsessed by his resentment, becomes enslaved. Having already given up an industrious profession, he spends his whole life in the service of slavery, loses everything in pursuit of Mabel and Cora, and is left with only a slave for company, toothless and nearly insane, an utterly wasted man.

Mabel's sacrifice for Cora, although it does not play out the way she intended, and although her daughter is never able to appreciate it, is nevertheless successful, for it leaves Cora free and Ridgeway broken.


message 4: by Connie (new)

Connie (connier) | 52 comments I read this back at the beginning of the year and I gave it 4 out of 5 stars. I too, was disappointed that this was not about the real underground railroad that I have read about in the past. I didn't really feel that this was a true historical fiction book even though it dealt with slavery.

I am surprised it won a Pulitzer, as I didn't feel the writing or maybe even the style of writing was one that should have won. I have certainly read better books that never won a Pulitzer or were nominated. I know opinions are subjective and this is my personal opinion.


message 5: by Linda (new)

Linda Ulleseit (lindaulleseit) | 42 comments Denise wrote: "As a retired middle school teacher who frequently had to read research projects involving the Underground Railroad, I recall groaning when students mentioned purchasing tickets to board the train. ..."

Oh, I totally agree! Is it only teachers who felt that way?


message 6: by Denise (new)

Denise Mullins | 292 comments Linda wrote: "Denise wrote: "As a retired middle school teacher who frequently had to read research projects involving the Underground Railroad, I recall groaning when students mentioned purchasing tickets to bo..."
I am afraid to hazard a guess as to how many adults actually believe that.


message 7: by Harry (new)

Harry Miller | 33 comments Friends, I'm going to weigh in a little bit for Mr. Whitehead. As a writer of historical fiction, he was within his rights to make the railroad into a real railroad. The device at least sets up the contrast by which the white conductor is able to say something like "Riding a train is the best way to see the country," and of course the black passengers cannot approach the issue in the same touristy way and can't see anything out of the window, anyway. The image of mysterious workers building something under America's surface that will change everything above is effective too.

Perhaps the locomotive metaphor wasn't worth the price of the historical distortion, but perhaps it was. Either way, the creation of metaphor is part of the writer's job, and I cannot fault him for trying it.


message 8: by Denise (new)

Denise Mullins | 292 comments Harry wrote: "Friends, I'm going to weigh in a little bit for Mr. Whitehead. As a writer of historical fiction, he was within his rights to make the railroad into a real railroad. The device at least sets up the..."

While I appreciate figurative language in any type of literature, in the context of Mr. Whitehead's work, it seemed just too broad a use of poetic licence, particularly if his aim was to present readers with important facts regarding this subject matter.
In this specific instance, do you think the author did more to promote his views or that it proved detrimental to his agenda?


message 9: by Charlene (new)

Charlene (charlenev) | 43 comments Newbie weighing in here. I read a very interesting interview that NPR did with Mr. Whitehead. He explains his thought process as he conceptualized the novel. He freely admits he played a bit fast and loose with historical fact, and, for example, took pieces of 20th century history and placed it in the 19th century. I have to say, I had a different perspective and appreciation for the novel after reading this. Here's the link if you care to read it: https://www.npr.org/templates/transcr...


message 10: by Harry (new)

Harry Miller | 33 comments Dear Denise,

Yes, I can see that someone unfamiliar with the history of slavery, like a student, might, upon reading this book, develop misconceptions about the details; and those misconceptions would be vexing to that student's teacher.

As for me, however, I knew that the underground railroad wasn't a literal railroad and had no trouble accepting Mr. Whitehead's literary device as a literary device. When I began his chapter on South Carolina, which is anachronistic and imaginative, I confess I did a "huh?" but then, after about five seconds, I accepted this contrivance too. I read on and absorbed what Mr. Whitehead was saying about race relations in America, which is based on fact though unfaithful to precise detail.

I've read the NPR transcript provided by Ms. Charlene (thank you) and see that Mr. Whitehead was following the example of Gulliver's Travels, exploring the question "What if every state our hero went through as he or she ran north was a different state of American possibility?" I think it's wrong to dismiss the experiment, just because the underground railroad wasn't a real subterranean locomotive. Jonathan Swift managed to say a few things about human society, even though there are no such places as Lilliput and Laputa. Picasso's "Guernica" is a powerful though not photographically accurate depiction of Guernica.


message 11: by Abigail (new)

Abigail Bok (regency_reader) | 615 comments Perhaps what we're really struggling with here is the prescriptive boundaries of genre definitions. This book is not historical fiction as we ordinarily conceive it; in fact, when it was nominated I questioned whether it was historical fiction at all. The genre is associated in most people's minds with fidelity to verifiable fact, woven about with speculation over the details. This work takes a different approach, sticking to broad thematic principles that are true to history while inventing many of the facts. If I had to label it, I might call it speculative history, but in general I prefer to keep genre labels off books and just take them as they come. Approached in that way, this book is certainly interesting, though I'd feel more comfy if it had an extended historical note setting straight the facts.


message 12: by Denise (new)

Denise Mullins | 292 comments Abigail wrote: "Perhaps what we're really struggling with here is the prescriptive boundaries of genre definitions. This book is not historical fiction as we ordinarily conceive it; in fact, when it was nominated ..."
Your point is well made. Perhaps I am more of a traditionalist, but I believe that historic fiction should be based on verifiable facts. Harry's examples of the section about South Carolina are a perfect case in point; I mentioned some of Whitehead's liberties from that section at my recent book club and a number of people voiced that while they found some of those assertions "strange", they never bothered to check them out. This, in my mind, sets a disturbing precedent for creating myths around a topic and era of history that many would find easier to dismiss, brand as "fake news", or otherwise distort.


message 13: by Niveditha (new)

Niveditha R (nivedithar) | 4 comments What is the metaphorical 'underground railroad', exactly?

I am not familiar with American history, but the idea of an operational underground railroad, which remained undetected for such a long time period seems far-fetched. I mean, how did they dig so many tunnels without anyone finding out?!


message 14: by Abigail (new)

Abigail Bok (regency_reader) | 615 comments Hi, Niveditha, I can understand your confusion! There was no physical railroad underground. Instead, there was a network of cooperating people and safe hideouts that helped slaves escape from the South to the North, and this secret network was called the Underground Railroad--"underground" being a figure of speech meaning "secret" or covert. If the escaping slave was caught, he or she would be killed or dragged back to an angry master. If he or she could get north of the Mason-Dixon line, as the division between the slaveholding states and the free states was called, then he or she would be free (more or less--there were bounty hunters who might capture former slaves even in the North, and sometimes even free black people in the North would be seized and sold into slavery).

So this book is controversial as historical fiction because it imagines a real railroad that did not exist.


message 15: by Niveditha (new)

Niveditha R (nivedithar) | 4 comments Thanks for the clarification Abigail!

Finished the book. The writing style was grating on my nerves initially, but I kind of got used to it. At important points of the novel, Whitehead just brushes over with a few lines, when I would have liked to have been given more details.

Overall, I've read better books on the topic of slavery. Agree with Connie that it didn't deserve a Pulitzer.


message 16: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Anze | 3 comments I read this one last year and it was just okay with me. I do not mind that the author depicted the underground railroad as an actual train. But did grate my nerves was the pace and characterization. Too much time was spent the backstories of ALL the characters which was tiresome. The pace also lacked. I agree with many here that this work did not deserve to win the Pulltzer.


message 17: by Kelly B (new)

Kelly B (kellybey) I read this book shortly after it came out, and I did enjoy it. I rated it 4/5.

I personally do not consider it historical fiction due to the points mentioned above; although Goodreads certainly has it categorized that way.


message 18: by Sydney (last edited Aug 28, 2018 07:18AM) (new)

Sydney (slknutsen) | 329 comments Abigail wrote: "Hi, Niveditha, I can understand your confusion! There was no physical railroad underground. Instead, there was a network of cooperating people and safe hideouts that helped slaves escape from the S..."

For example, I live near a former Underground Railroad station in southern Illinois, which is/was a small country church. Also the men/women who took in these fugitives at their "Stations or Depots" were called Station Masters. After food and rest and supplies, they were sent onto the next Station. "Conductors" led them to the next Station at night, usually on foot. It was so secret that Station Masters/Conductors only knew part of the operation (due to infiltrators). Note: There was all kinds of code. Canada was known as the Promised Land or Heaven. The Ohio River (separated slave states from free) was known as the Jordan River. All involved were very brave souls! It's estimated that about 100,000 people escaped via the famous Underground Railroad.


message 19: by Denise (new)

Denise Mullins | 292 comments I live in Norton, Ohio and there was a "station" in what is now a local tavern a mile from our house.


message 20: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Crane | 34 comments Interesting discussion! I finished "The Underground Railroad" several weeks ago and am just now reading the comments. I didn't like the book very much, as I said on the *No Spoilers* discussion thread. The literal "underground railroad" was annoying. More than that, I didn't like Whitehead's writing. It's not the sentence fragments that I found wanting. It's his flat-footed language, particularly towards the middle and end of the novel. I read a number of reviews to see why the critics liked this book enough that it won a Pulitzer. I haven't found a satisfactory answer.


message 21: by Jasmine, Gatekeeper of Giveaways. (new)

Jasmine | 1236 comments Mod
I did not mind that the author made the underground railroad a real railroad. I found that piece of artistic license interesting. I just wasn't wowed by this book. I liked it and found it enjoyable, but it was an instance where all the hype made my expectations much higher than what was delivered in the novel. I also really disliked Mabel's chapter. I almost wanted her to have ran away and wanted to know what compels a mother to leave her child in pursuit of freedom. I thought that story would be far more interesting. The fact she turned around and was bitten by a snake was blasé.


message 22: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 2 comments It seems that I'm on the same page with everyone else. I found myself confused while reading this book questioning the validity of what was going (which was very distracting). The idea of an actual underground railroad threw me when Cora discovered it and by the end I was honestly a little sick of it. The end of the book was a letdown too, I didn't feel like Cora really escaped after all her trials.


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