Summary and book reviews of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad

A Novel

by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
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  • Published:
    Aug 2016, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Book Summary

From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver's Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Excerpt
The Underground Railroad

THE first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

This was her grandmother talking. Cora's grandmother had never seen the ocean before that bright afternoon in the port of Ouidah and the water dazzled after her time in the fort's dungeon. The dungeon stored them until the ships arrived. Dahomeyan raiders kidnapped the men first, then returned to her village the next moon for the women and children, marching them in chains to the sea two by two. As she stared into the black doorway, Ajarry thought she'd be reunited with her father, down there in the dark. The survivors from her village told her that when her father couldn't keep the pace of the long march, the slavers stove in his head and left his body by the trail. Her mother had died years before.

Cora's grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How does the depiction of slavery in The Underground Railroad compare to other depictions in literature and film?
  2. The scenes on Randall's plantation are horrific—how did the writing affect you as a reader?
  3. In North Carolina, institutions like doctor's offices and museums that were supposed to help 'black uplift' were corrupt and unethical. How do Cora's challenges in North Carolina mirror what America is still struggling with today?
  4. Cora constructs elaborate daydreams about her life as a free woman and dedicates herself to reading and expanding her education. What role do you think stories play for Cora and other travelers using the underground railroad?
  5. "The treasure, of course, was the underground ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about The Underground Railroad. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

"The treasure, of course, was the underground railroad… Some might call freedom the dearest currency of all." How does this quote shape the story for you?
This quote underscores the importance freedom to Martin's father, Donald, who founded a spur of the Underground RR in North Carolina, where "working this far south was suicide...". He hoped Martin would see the importance of his mission, and carry it... - pamelah

Cora's mother
I agree that having the fate of Mabel held to the end of the story was effective. Mabel was a legend which gave Cora the strength to attempt her many escapes & endure all the hardships cast upon her. The Author could have left her story unresolved ... - marganna

Do you feel that you now have a better understanding of what slavery was like?
I think this book heightened my appreciation for the multifaceted fear, and uncertainty that slaves must have felt. The uncertainty of how one would be treated by a white owner, coupled with the uncertainty of not being able to trust some of your ... - pamelah

Does The Underground Railroad change the way you look at the history of America?
While the book doesn't change the way I look at American history, it does make me more aware of the fact that our history contains many shameful chapters, slavery among them. The book reinforces the need to confront these shameful and sad chapters ... - juliaa

How did the scenes on Randall's plantation affect you as a reader?
The scenes on the plantation were horrible - painful to read. I know we've read & seen the cruelty of man to man & animal from the beginning of time. However to be involved with characters so real, with depth & realism as Mr. Whitehead portrays, made... - marganna

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  • award image

    National Book Awards
    2016

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    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2017

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Reading The Underground Railroad offers plenty of reminders of just how far our nation has come since these darkest years in our history, but also countless reminders of just how far we have yet to travel before we arrive at any destination resembling that hopeful vision.   (Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

Full Review Members Only (766 words).

Media Reviews

New York Times

In recounting Cora's story, Mr. Whitehead communicates the horrors of slavery and its toxic legacy rumbling on down the years. At the same time, he memorializes the yearning for freedom that spurs one generation after another to persevere in the search for justice — despite threats and intimidation, despite reversals and efforts to turn back the clock. He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [S]pellbinding and ferocious.... The story is literature at its finest and history at its most barbaric. Would that this novel were required reading for every American citizen.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller's deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass' grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft's rococo fantasies…and that's when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is. Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Reader Reviews

Quail

'Underground'?
I enjoy historical fiction and thought this book was great! The fact that the author made you think the railway was actually underground was a nice twist to the concept of 'underground'.

Sandi W.

Unconventional slant
An escape through the underground railroad. We may have read many novels in relation to this historical event, but none like Colson Whiteheads version. During this pre-civil war saga, our protagonist Cora is determined to escape her owner and make ...   Read More

Becky H

Just not very good
My big problem with this book is: it doesn’t know what it is. Is it historical fiction? Yes, and no. Is it science fiction? Yes, and no. Is it alternative universe/history? Yes, and no. I had the uncomfortable feeling all while reading it that I ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Body Snatching

Body SnatchersWhitehead's well-researched novel The Underground Railroad offers glimpses into numerous phenomena characterizing the often-brutal experiences of black Americans in the early nineteenth century, both in the South and the North. In one section, Whitehead profiles a group of Boston-area body snatchers, spurred by demand for cadavers in the rapidly growing field of medical and anatomical research.

The practice of body snatching for medical research actually dates back to the early 1300s, when four medical students in Bologna, Italy, committed the crime. As interest in anatomy grew during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so did the practice of body snatching, with professional body snatchers (known as "resurrectionists") employing...

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