The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


4.03  ·  Rating details ·  107,887 Ratings  ·  12,627 Reviews
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead download or read online for free
The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish 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 and, 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. 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.

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.

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes--believes with all its heart--that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

“Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”

“Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.”




Reviews


Excellent writing, strong concept. I am personally burnt out on slavery narratives so I cannot say this was a pleasure to read. So much unrelenting horror. 
Whitehead does an excellent job of portraying slavery and America as a slave nation. The idea of the underground railroad, as an actual railroad, is so smart and interesting. I wish he had actually done more with the railroad itself. There were some sentences where I thought, "Now you are just showing off." The amount of research the author did is clear, throughout. There is some really interesting structural work at play. I wanted some of the secondary characters to be more fully developed. This book is going to do very well, and rightly so.
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I came to this book with some resistance, regardless of it being the Pulitzer Prize winner for 2017.
I've owned the physical book since last year. It kept being easier to read something else.

I felt it was my duty to read this book.
But wait.....
Haven't I done my duty?
I've read three James Baldwin books 'this' year....I've seen the movie "12 Years a Slave", and "Birth of a Nation".
I've read "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, "The Kitchen House", by Kathleen Grissom, "Between The World And Me", by Ta-Nehisi Coates, etc.

Still needed to do my duty!!!
My expectations going into this book were LOW. I saw more 3-stars and 'under' until 'recently'. The very first few reviews I saw last year had 'negative' things to say about this book. I thought .... "great, one less painful book for me to experience"!
And then......something happened- I read a VERY MOVING 5 star review by *Julie
Christine Johnson*......that seriously stayed with me. I knew it was time to read this book soon.

STILL with some resistance ---BUT...I knew I believed whole heartedly in everything I read in Julie's review. This was a case where reading reviews- low & high... WAS SUPPORTIVE to me BEFORE I read the book. NONE of the reviews spoiled my own reading.

I HIGHLY-HIGHLY RECOMMEND READING MANY REVIEWS- HIGH - LOW- MIDDLE - and DNF....if on the fence about reading "The Underground Railroad".


Given my expectations started out LOW .. I was pleasantly happy to discover I enjoyed reading this book much more than I thought. At the same time, I tend to agree with some of the low reviews, and some of the high reviews.

In Navidad Thelamour's review, she says: "The novel would've been better served being written in first person, for Cora's chapters at the 'very' least". I AGREE WITH HER!! ......I think - as the reader - we might have FELT what she was experiencing MUCH MORE ... if we felt as if she were speaking to us. It might have been even 'more' unbearable to read though.

I was especially inspired by Poingu's review.
She says: "I finished utterly exhilarated. This novel is a triumphant act of imagination". I AGREE!!!!!
However, Poingu goes on to mention something she did not like.
Poingu says: "There were too many characters to superficially drawn; sometimes I felt there was too much narrative summary; the bad guys trended toward evil caricatures rather than multidimensional people; there was an odd distancing effect between the reader and any one character because there is so little offered of each characters interior thinking". I ALSO AGREE!!!!!!
I could never have put that sentence together so eloquently as Poingu. - thank you, Poingu!

I 'stopped ' trying to remember all the minor characters. There were TONS!!! Almost TOO MANY!
However-like Poingu, .... SHE LOVED READING THIS BOOK. I did too!!! So, for me, I didn't worry about the minor flaws. Or all the minor characters . It was the greater context which I was taking in.

I ended up being blown away by the powerful allegory of the Underground Railroad... the crafting of this story played with 'my imagination'.
Very clever creative structure. We get to keep dancing in imaginary visuals of being - on a train - a real train with conductors- but then are jolted by horrifying beatings, lynchings staged like a theater production, rapes, and brutal truths from state to state . Everything about slavery was so terrifying--that by the end this novel, I was left with the incredible achievement "The Underground Railroad" is.

Cora is on the run from Arnold Ridgeway - the master slave catcher ( she didn't know she was on the run when she first learned about FREE NORTH, that Caesar told her about). Things are not as easy as 'free'.
From South Carolina, to North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, on to 'the north'....at every step of the way... there is terror, hatred, atrocity, gruesome repulsion.
The descriptions are horrific. Its hard to be with SO MUCH VIOLENCE!
However, the brutal honesty lights a fire in us. We DO NOT WANT TO EVER ALLOW HISTORY TO REPEAT ITSELF.... so yes, we I'm glad I read this book. Even with some minor flaws --- I can't give this novel less than 5 stars.
I'm sad - sorry - angry and ashamed- for all the horrific sufferings in our past history over racial inequality!
At the same time --I'm left with hope - strength- and our humanity.

Brutal and Beautiful Book! .....I hope they make a movie.... I think the impact would be powerful.

There are some great interviews of Colson Whitehead. He is such a humble and wonderful man! Worth looking up!
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This is a difficult book to read with the horrific treatment and gruesome punishments of African American slaves so much a part of the narrative, but it is essential that we read this and other books like it . We need these powerful, compelling and gut wrenching reminders of what life was like on a plantation in Georgia and other places in the South and what it might have been like to be a runaway. This story is told mainly from the perspective of a young slave woman named Cora and the portrayal of her escape and journey toward freedom. I was also moved by the story of Cora's grandmother Ajarry, captured in Africa and transported to America. Cora's mother Mabel also has her story.

Colson Whitehead imagines the The Underground Railroad as if it were an actual railroad with trains and conductors. While this work is a fictional representation of the time and place and does an excellent job of conveying the time and place and what seems like a genuine feeling of what it was like to be Cora, I have to admit I had some reservations about making it a real railroad. I felt like the creation of an actual railroad in a way diminishes the the true Underground Railroad whose strength was the people moving people to freedom not a railway but a network of routes and a group of people who didn't have a railroad to move them around . I'm sure there will be much discussion of this and I may be an outlier here.

So for this and the fact that I found it a little slow going and just had too many characters, I would rate this 3.5 stars if half stars were allowed . But overall , this is just such an important book that I have to round it up to 4 stars . Cora's story is one that we mustn't forget because she represents so many of the real life slaves who we have to remember.
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     What a world, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close, but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand. - Colson Whitehead

    People get ready, there’s a train a-coming - Curtis Mayfield

In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Underground Railroad, he takes a figurative term and gives it a literal application. This Underground Railroad posits a literal brick, steel, and steam system that transports fleeing slaves from southern captivity to what is hoped to be a form of freedom. This RR has actual station agents with and conductors. Most importantly, it has passengers.
 In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Underground Railroad, he takes a figurative term and gives it a literal application. This Underground Railroad posits a literal brick, steel, and steam system that transports fleeing slaves from southern captivity to what is hoped to be a form of freedom.
Image from Whitehead’s Twitter feed
Our guide through this underworld is Cora, 17 when we meet her, a slave on the Randalls’ property, in Georgia. Encouraged to flee with him by fellow slave, Caesar, she demurs, fearing failure and dire circumstances. But when her situation at the property becomes too damaging to endure, she signs on.

Throughout the tale, we get bits of backstory. We learn of Cora’s mother, a slave who had fled when Cora was 11, never to be seen or heard from again. We learn some details of slave life. That brutality was a central feature will come as no surprise to anyone, but some of the specifics of such an existence will be news to many of us. The book had a particularly long gestation.

    I had the idea for the book about 16 years ago, recalling how when I was a kid, I thought the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad and when I found out it wasn’t, I was disappointed. So I thought it was a cool idea, and then I thought, “Well, what if it actually was a real railroad? That seems like a cool premise for a book.”  But I had just finished up a research-heavy project and wasn’t up for that kind of ordeal again, and I didn’t feel mature enough or up to the task. But every couple of years, when I was between books, I would pull out my notes and ask myself if I was ready. And inevitably I would realize that I wasn’t really up for it. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I really committed to the idea. - from the Bookpage interview
There is much here that hearkens back to literary classics. Cora might certainly feel a kinship with Jean Valjean of Les Miserables, escaping a wretched life, but pursued by a relentless, Javert-like slave catcher, Arnold Ridgeway. Ridgeway had been enraged for years that he’d failed to find and bring back Cora’s mother, Mabel, who had fled six years earlier. One might also think of stories like Gulliver’s Travels, in which each stop along the journey points out another form of madness.
Colson Whitehead - image from the NY Times
The route takes Cora from Georgia to what seems a relatively benign South Carolina, then on to North Carolina for some new forms of horror, and finally on to Indiana, which offers its own forms of misery. Whitehead is not shy about part of his plan. I thought, why not write a book that really scares you?
Whitehead was more interested in communicating the internal rather than external historical reality.

    The first chapter in Georgia I tried to make realistic and stick to the historical record, and then after that, I wanted to stick to the truth of the black experience but not necessarily the facts. As we go to South Carolina and Indiana and the different states that Cora goes to, I am playing with history and time, moving things up to talk about the Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and the eugenics movement. So in some sense, it’s not really a historical novel at all because I’m moving things around. - from the Bookpage interview
Whitehead peppers Cora’s story with bizarre events, like regular public lynchings in one town, an early and bitingly grim version of public entertainment, reminiscent of feeding Christians to lions for the delight of the townspeople. A living history museum in which Cora plays the part of slaves through history in diverse tableaux makes your spidey senses wonder what might result.

Whitehead took his inspiration from diverse sources. Cora spend a protracted time in an attic, terrified of being discovered, and with good reason, as public lynchings are regularly held right across the street in a public park. The inspiration for that was Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which Harriet hid for years in a crawl space, terrified of being captured.
Primarily I read slave narratives. There are a few histories of the Underground Railroad; one of the first ones I read, which proved the most useful was Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich. That gave me an overview of the railroad, but the main thing was just reading the words of former slaves themselves. - from the Bookpage interview
It would be a challenge to remain unmoved by Cora’s journey, and impossible to come away from reading this book without learning some things about the slave experience and the conditions that people treated as property endured.

One may take issue with decisions made by this or that person in the story, but it is worth suspending a bit of disbelief to appreciate the journey on which Whitehead leads us. No one will force you to read The Underground Railroad, but choosing to do so would be an excellent expression of your freedom.
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Cora is a slave at a Georgia plantation in the antebellum South. When a fellow slave tells her about the Underground Railroad, she finds the courage to run for her freedom. Thus begins her odyssey as a runaway slave, where her adventures introduce her to unprecedented horrors and lead her to disheartening realizations.

The Underground Railroad rekindles the discussion and study of slavery. The harsh realities of those dark chapters in American history are presented with brute bluntness but remain eloquent in their presentation. It makes for a strange but savory contrast, to read about something so dreadful yet have it conferred with such sophistication:

The noxious air of the hold, the gloom of confinement, and the screams of those shackled to her contrived to drive [her] to madness. Because of her tender age, her captors did not immediately force their urges on her, but eventually some of the more seasoned mates dragged her from the hold six weeks into the passage.

Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always - the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.

Peppered throughout the book are short, engrossing chapters highlighting secondary or even tertiary characters, but the main point of focus is Cora, a sympathetic character if ever there was one. Cora only knows one life, and it is rife with degradation, abuse, and sorrow.

Cora didn't know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.

Every step of her journey forces Cora to question whether or not she is still chattel. Freedom - in the purest, truest sense of the word - seems to always remain just beyond her reach.

What a world this is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your haven. [. . .] Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had.

The author chose his timeline well and integrates other interesting and sickening moments in American history. In addition to slavery, The Underground Railroad touches on the surreptitiously induced sterilization of blacks; the secret studies of syphilis, conducted by white doctors on black patients without their knowledge; and the rise in the practice of autopsy and the subsequent need for corpses, which led to grave robbing and the irreverent disposal of deceased black peoples' bodies for scientific study.

The writing is superb throughout. Carefully selected word choices lend themselves to having harsh and long-standing impact on readers.

The stone vault above was white with splashes of red, like blood from a whipping that soaked through a shirt.

He wrung out every possible dollar. When black blood was money, the savvy business man knew to open every vein.

At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capitol, profit made flesh.

This book is an accessible read, breezy for the ease of its writing by weighty for the depth of its subject matter. It's no wonder The Underground Railroad won the 2016 National Book Award for fiction.
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The plight of slaves who are so badly treated that they are willing to risk horrendous punishment in an attempt to flee from their hellish circumstances, used to be all too common. In this historical fiction, our resident rebel is Cora, a young woman who is ready to try and escape.

This book and its subject matter put things into perspective. Life used to be hellish or thereabouts to anyone not a man, and not white. Given that teenagers nowadays have it easy, very easy compared to their ancestors, is a testament of the change induced with the passage of time.

To be honest, I know little of The Underground Railroad, but the book that espoused this term, is a well toned, well told, and well gauged book. Historical fiction such as The Outlander series, are fun in their own way. But this book is different. It's subject matter is still of actuality, and is still sensitive. I can understand that The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award. It's thoroughly deserved.
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"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," stated First Lady Michelle Obama at this year's Democratic National Convention. Her words seemed to come as a surprise to many, those who had either forgotten or had never known that black hands enslaved by white masters built the iconic edifice of our democracy.

As we come to the end of an extraordinary eight years of the nation's first President of color while witnessing the continued systemic racism that pervades every corner of our collective American culture, as we engage in open, honest dialogue about white privilege, how black lives matter, and denounce the wretched anti-immigrant language spewed by politicians and political candidates, we must also acknowledge and work to overcome the continued ignorance of our nation's darkest and ugliest history- a history that has led us inexorably to the painful circumstance of contemporary racism.

In his breathtaking novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead demonstrates the earth-shattering power of an artistic voice to carry the legacy of the past into our now . He takes what we know to be true, but breaks free from the confines of history to create a brilliant work of fiction.

Cora is a young woman enslaved on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, like her mother and grandmother before her. She is the voice, the eyes, ears and body by which the reader witnesses and suffers the brutality of slavery- the rape and beatings, the whippings, torture and murder of the men and women who make up her community, however transitory and temporary it is. Cora “had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft.”

Cora's mother escaped years earlier, leaving her young daughter—a betrayal and an abandonment that burns deep in Cora's heart. Knowing the horrors that await a captured runaway slave, escape is only a fantasy, until Cora meets Caesar, a new arrival on the plantation. Caesar tells her about about the free north where he once lived and the way out of their imprisonment, by way of an underground railroad. He convinces her to flee, and we as readers are led from the nightmare of plantation life to the heart-stopping tension of escape.

The Underground Railroad takes on a hallucinatory affect, as Whitehead makes literal the metaphorical network of safe houses that ran from the southern United States north into Canada in the 19th century. In reality, it was neither underground nor a railroad, but in this author's vibrant and vital imagination, the underground railroad is an almost faerie tale-like system, complete with stations and conductors hidden just beneath the scorched earth of slavery.

Chapters of Cora and Caesar's escape alternate with the stories of other characters in the world they are fleeing, most notably the slave hunter in pursuit, Ridgeway. Ridgeway tracked but never found Cora's mother, Mabel, and this failure drives him to pursue Cora from state to state in a near-frenzy of diabolical hatred and determination.

The surreal nature of the narrative makes the reality of slavery even more present and vivid. It is hard to grasp, and yet essential that we do, our recent history and how it continues to shape our present. Colson Whitehead has written a bold and terrible, beautiful and mythic novel that will hold you from the opening pages and not release you, even after you come to its end.
Highly recommended.
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Nobody could wait for Colson Whitehead’s new book — including Oprah, so here it is, a month early. In a surprise announcement Tuesday morning, Winfrey chose “The Underground Railroad” as the next title for Oprah’s Book Club. Originally set to release on Sept. 13, the novel is available now, the result of an extraordinary plan to start shipping 200,000 copies out to booksellers in secret.

Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, “The Underground Railroad” marks a new triumph for Whitehead. Since his first novel, “The Intuitionist” (1999), the MacArthur “genius” has nimbly explored America’s racial consciousness — and more — with an exhilarating blend of comedy, history, horror and speculative fiction. In this new book, though, those elements are choreographed as never before. The soaring arias of cleverness he’s known for have been modulated in these pages. The result is a book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. “The Underground Railroad” reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches. . . .
Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30555488-the-underground-railroad

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