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The Underground Railroad
A magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's desperate bid for...
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Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

Created: 10/27/16

Replies: 19

Posted Oct. 27, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
davinamw

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Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?


Posted Oct. 31, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
Dax

Join Date: 07/17/11

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

Like many people when I was young I thought that the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad then as I got older and learned that it wasn't a literal reference but rather a symbolic one. When I learned that the railroad was a series of people who believed in freedom for everyone so much so that they dug tunnels underneath their homes and helped people reach the northern states I remember being even more in awe of their efforts as they turned their beliefs into actions. So I think the author chose to imagine a real railroad because the concept links our childhood imagination with our adult understanding that it's about humanity which at its core is people recognizing and filling a need i.e. helping people regardless of their nationality or skin color or religious beliefs etc.


Posted Nov. 01, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
virginiap

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

Whitehead's portrayal of the railroad was his choice, but one that I did not care for. Even though this was fiction, it might be the only book some read on the underground railroad and their perception will be skewed. Historical fiction is very popular now, but that which I have read has stuck to the facts in the events.


Posted Nov. 01, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
susiej

Join Date: 10/15/14

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

I wonder if the author thought that the magical inclusion of a real railroad might draw readers to a topic they might otherwise choose not to read about. When I read a review of this novel and learned that it included a real railroad, my interest was piqued. I hoped to find a new way to think about this topic. As I read, I became disappointed in the novel. When the railroad was first introduced, I was interested; it created an aura of magic as well as a bit of an ominous feeling. I expected much of the plot action to occur beneath ground, to involve the railroad. However, as the plot developed the railroad was left behind and the action revolved around events above ground - much of the movement was confined to a wooden cart or trailer. The railroad seem left behind. One quote I recall from the book - I do not have it at hand - refers to the slaves as those who actually did all of the work. Perhaps creating a real railroad then symbolizes the great amount of work those held in bondage really did. Using magical realism here does not impact my concept of how the real underground railroad worked in anyway - it seems that no more people were able to use the fictional one at a given time or in a safer way than they were the real one.


Posted Nov. 01, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
jeannew

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

I thought this was the weakest aspect of the book. It seemed to have no impact on the characters or even the outcome of the story. In fact, I think it's a stronger story to focus on the characters who were involved in the Underground Railroad, such as Lumbly and Martin and Royal. Portraying their sacrifices as well deepens my respect for all of those involved in this activity.

From a magical realism viewpoint, maybe Whitehead was trying to say that the railroad was built by slave labor to help slaves escape. Thus we are all responsible for our choices in life. Any maybe that we have an obligation to help others who come after us.


Posted Nov. 02, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
barbm

Join Date: 02/04/16

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

I think he used magical realism of the railroad for two reasons. First, the railroad was the most powerful machine of the time. To bring freedom to the slaves would take an extremely powerful force. Second, the odds of reaching freedom were so slim... it's as slim as a huge amount of people being able to dig an underground railroad from state to state. I think the author had intention, but it's not very obvious.
This aspect of the story made the actual underground railroad come alive in a way.. it showed the links of people hiding people across the south, risking their lives for the freedom of others. So although I thought it silly when it was introduced, the magical realism did heighten my appreciation for those brave men and women and their organization.


Posted Nov. 02, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
JLPen77

Join Date: 02/05/16

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

To my mind, this element of fantasy is very slight, compared to the way it has been described in reviews, but I wasn't disappointed, because it is a very symbolic part of the story and this novel is all about symbolism -- it is an allegory, in my opinion. And indeed, the original Underground Railroad drew its name from an analogy with a powerful new method of travel -- built by slaves (or imported cheap labor treated as free men in name only). So it wasn't such a fantastic stretch, nor intended to be, in my opinion.

The imaginary subterranean railroad here works the same way as it did in history: We never escape the uncertainties, discomforts, dangers and terrors of the quest for sanctuary from racial violence, for either the passengers or the agents. The runaways, Cora and Caesar, are allegorical; their journey is the archetypal progress of the soul in bondage in a very particular place, America up to and including the present day. As Cora learns, through her awakening in books and snatches of opportunity to learn from new encounters, the entire history of America is one of whites stealing from others -- native land, African bodies -- and the view from the underground train, as one conductor tells Cora ironically, shows you all America has to offer: darkness. There are lost tunnels and stations and long delays, just as the path to freedom has never been straightforward, and is likewise surrounded by the darkness of our racism.


Posted Nov. 03, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
kariner

Join Date: 07/20/16

Posts: 13

RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

In all honesty, I had to go re-read my history to make sure I was not mistaken! The way he portrays the railroad it seems as though it really existed. I had the vision of Polar Express in my head; a wild fantisful locomotive taking you to a wonderful place you only imagined existed.


Posted Nov. 03, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
christineb

Join Date: 10/13/11

Posts: 46

RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

I enjoyed the use of the "real" railroad. it gave a fascinating perspective to the story but it somehow made their travels seem easier thinking that they were really "riding" from place to place and not hiding in barns, woods, escaping predators etc.


Posted Nov. 04, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
celiaarnaud

Join Date: 04/18/12

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

As I read some of the earlier responses to this question, I was thinking of the fact that people put too much stock in historical fiction as history. I have one time read a novel in which the historical character was so well drawn that when I went and read the definitive biography of the subject, I didn't actually learn anything new. Most of the time that doesn't happen.

I think the fact the Colson Whitehead used magical realism to describe his version of the Underground Railroad is a clear signal that we need to not take this as history but look for other kinds of truths in it. The race relations in the various states doesn't really reflect what they were like at the time of the real underground railroad. Instead, they suggest events that happened later. The one that was clearest for me in that respect was forced sterilizations and research experiments in the chapter set in South Carolina. That made me think of the Tuskegee syphilis study more than anything else. And in the context of the book, that was one of the better places. But it showed that something that seems good on the surface can be bad underneath.

In terms of my concept of the actual underground railroad...I think this helps point to the great coordination and infrastructure that was necessary to make it work. In Whitehead's book, this was an actual physical infrastructure. Imagine how much time and effort would have gone into building something like that if it had actually been done that way. And all of this is going on underneath everything else. I'm not sure whether the technology would have actually been there to do it the way he describes. The fact that he made it a physical railroad with actual tunnels reminds me of The Count of Monte Cristo and tunneling out of the prison.


Posted Nov. 04, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
JLPen77

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

I like what you had to say, celiaamaud. The more significant magical realism here, to me, wasn't the railroad as a physical structure, but his playing with-- rearranging-- the chronology and geography of history along Cora's journey, which as you point out, is not meant to be taken as a straightforward, linear historical account. Each railroad stop/ state offers a different experience that has its roots in historical reality, but is not exactly confined to that location, and definitely not in any actual historical sequence. The "states" are like a series of exhibits, each one exploring a different example of racism in American history, in a way that emphasizes its connection with what's happening today. Or one could say each state in the story symbolizes a state of mind that did prevail at some point in the past, and which still lingers and influences the present.


Posted Nov. 04, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
celiaarnaud

Join Date: 04/18/12

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

JLPen77, a friend of mine read the book before I did and she thought each chapter was meant to portray a different era of race relations in American history. She hadn't worked it all the way through, so she didn't say much else. But her limited comments did prime me to be on the lookout. The Tuskegee parallel really just jumped up and slapped me in the face. The other chapters I'm having trouble pinning to such an explicit parallel. The hanging of the corpses in the trees along the "freedom trail" in North Carolina made me think of lynchings and the Billie Holliday song Strange Fruit, but what was happening in that chapter seems so far beyond the pale even for the south in the age of lynchings, that I'm not sure what to make of it.


Posted Nov. 05, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
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bestmartin

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

Dax, I love what you wrote and I agree totally. When I first got to the descriptions of the railroad I paused to wonder if I had imagined it that way in my youth. Then I realized that both concepts were seamless. It was about people helping people/slaves in whatever way they could. Thank you for you evocative comments.


Posted Nov. 05, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
clapshot

Join Date: 11/05/16

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

It really wasn't an actual railroad, was it? One interesting thing about this novel is that Whitehead moves back and forth from the real, some of which is horrible, and the imaginary. It seems to me that for people caught in the yoke of slavery, the imagination must have been terribly important. In other words, I need to be able to imagine something different, some other life in order to move toward it. The railroad is the way out of my present situation. I must therefore believe that it's real.


Posted Nov. 06, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
RRO

Join Date: 07/18/11

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

As I read through these posts I felt that no one really understood the author's intent until I scrolled down to celiaarnaud's first post. The entire book was an allegory of different times in race relations beginning with slavery and the underground railroad. The railroad as depicted here worked the same way as the real underground railroad except that this book version had an actual railroad underground. As soon as I read about the syphilis experiments I thought about the Tuskegee experiments, which occurred in the 20th century. After that I was able to see the entire book as an allegory. The author was very creative in the way he presented his story and really held my attention on a coast-to-coast flight last week where I read the entire book.


Posted Nov. 15, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
edie

Join Date: 04/05/12

Posts: 44

RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

One of the dominant themes running through The Underground Railroad is the premise that the path to freedom and self-realization is not an easy one. There is no map that clearly delineates the way or guarantees a safe way with assurances of success.

We see this in the repeated image of a Declaration of Independence that spoke the truth and promises of the founding fathers, but did not explain it nor address how to attain it. Michael, the boy on Randall’s plantation recited the words accurately, but his understanding was crippled by those who denied him its rights. Cora saw the small school children of Valentine’s farm as little Michaels, speaking words with no meaning. But their teacher, Georgina, had a different take on it. “What they don’t understand today, they might tomorrow. The Declaration is like a map. You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”

I think this is a pivotal statement and that Whitehead created a literal underground railroad to demonstrate its truth. Nothing worth fighting for is easy, even the fundamental principle of what it means to be human—personal freedom. His railroad was an ambiguous maze: sometimes a delightful ride as in Cora’s journey from Tennessee to Indiana, a trip comprised of luxurious seating, linen tables and a shining red engine; sometimes frightful and leading to a dead end as in the train brought her to North Carolina where there was no connection; and sometimes it was a frightening and crude means of transportation as in her escape from Ridgeway on the pump car that took her away from Indiana into an uncertain future.

The way to freedom as defined by the Declaration of Independence is never safe or secure, but it demands risk, sacrifice, and a fierce determination to follow that road in uncertainty and hope. That’s what the literal underground railroad demonstrate, what Cora commits to following and why the struggle never ends—even today. And that’s also why this is such an amazing novel. What is better than to speak the truth and make it ring clear. We need this voice to prod those of us who struggle to find the way forward in today’s world. Thank you, Colson Whitehead!


Posted Nov. 21, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
maryjaneb

Join Date: 01/09/16

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

I did not care for the magical aspect of the railroad. I felt it diminished the efforts and risks of those people who actually endangered themselves to pass the slaves to the north. The title implied that that aspect of slavery would be a part of the story. I confess I felt disappointed that the book was not as realistic as I believed.


Posted Nov. 21, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
maryjaneb

Join Date: 01/09/16

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

I did not care for the magical aspect of the railroad. I felt it diminished the efforts and risks of those people who actually endangered themselves to pass the slaves to the north. The title implied that that aspect of slavery would be a part of the story. I confess I felt disappointed that the book was not as realistic as I believed.


Posted Nov. 22, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
alisonf

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

I loved the device. I thought it was a clever way to transition the journey and since it is a fantastical thought that many of us picture when we first learn about the Underground Railroad it seemed right for this story. I did not find it distracting and it provided a structure that anchored the story!


Posted Nov. 23, 2016 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
marganna

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RE: Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

I wanted to learn more about the "underground railroad" - not a magical aspect - wrong book, I think. I knew there was no actual railroad as in trains chugging along train tracks taking slaves to freedom. I can see the cleverness of the author as he is using this magic railroad vision to take us along through the states & their application of slavery. Although I learned a bit about the dangers & sacrifices people along the escape routes encountered & how some helped Cora, I think Mr. Whitehead would have done me a favor & put in more historical components of this heroic way of helping people escape the misery of so many situations.


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