It's more than a story of slavery. The actual events may be scrutinized for accuracy of time and place but it prompts the reader to research and learn more. The underground railroad in the novel is not well developed but does take the reader to various states where each has its set of social ideals and views on slavery. What I feel stands to high acclaim is the many ideals of humanity and equality that Colson interjects through his characters.
This book surpassed my expectations and I felt incredibly satisfied at the end. Great writing. Colson Whitehead blew me away. This should be on everyone's book club reading list.
With all of the accolades this book has received, it was only a matter of time before I picked it up. The Underground Railroad surpassed my expectations - the fictionalized historical details that Whitehead wove into the narrative were both jarring and utterly believable. Whitehead has transformed the historical network of safehouses and allies that we know as the underground railroad into an actual system of trains and rails; this adds a fantastical element to a story that is otherwise very grounded. This novel is highly readable despite its grim content. If you enjoy epic historical sagas but are willing to suspend your disbelief to allow for modern social commentary, you've got to read The Underground Railroad.
After going to the Pen and Podium Book Club discussion and then hearing Colson Whitehead talk about and read this book, I began to understand my struggle with it. It is very difficult, unrelenting and painful to read - and that is the experience of enslavement. It is also atypical in its use of fantasy mingled with fact - many of us know a lot about this period of history and the actual "underground railroad" and so it is jarring when that is used as a metaphor, with actual trains and tunnels and stops. Also with the depiction of the North Carolina "trail of tears" and other unreal elements woven into the story. We forgive this and are even enchanted by it when it involves a culture foreign to us - the "magic realism" of Latino writers, for instance. But it is more challenging in our own culture. The confusion made me stop and think and experience something about the enslavement of people in my own history and culture in a way that reading other novels of the era have not done. After a difficult journey with the book, I appreciate it deeply.
A very disturbing fictional account of slavery in the US south. As a member of the human race I found this story very depressing because it recounts the terribly cruelties that human beings inflicted on others in this not too distant time period. Worth reading in order to learn more about an important part of american history.
I think this is a brilliant book for a couple of reasons. To start, it tackles a subject so emotionally charged that it is very difficult not to let the drama overwhelm everything. Slavery, like the holocaust, is a difficult thing to write about without falling into clichés about the nature of evil. The heart shouts loudly. What Whitehead manages to do is to escape history to some extent, and presents slavery as a state of mind that relates to race relations today. And he does it by making it so obviously not a real history. I read it in much the same way I read Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson; the truth being not in the historical accuracy but in tone and character.
And speaking of tone, I found myself often thinking how much this book was like Zone One in evoking a tone of constant menace. I think between the two books Whitehead has put his finger on the mental state of being black in America; that even when things seem good there is always, somewhere in the back of your mind, the feeling that the zombies or the lynch mobs could come any day.
Masterfully told, Colson Whitehead takes us on the horrific journey of African Americans out of slavery to a place of escape and hope on a real underground train.
I was really looking forward to reading this based on awards won and buzz generated. While the story was memorable and moving, the writing style detracted from my experience. I would still recommend this book, but don't get set your expectations too high. There have been far better books released recently (another shout out for "A Gentleman in Moscow").
Hard to put this book down; it is fascinating. The library classifies it as historical fiction; it is also science fiction. Few readers experience anything like the horrors of this book, but in some ways all of us are on a railroad journey in the dark, with good times and bad times. The casual cruelty to African-Americans is still with us.
Novel takes place in 1850. Cora is 17 years old.
I used to think of outbursts of anger as inadvertent. But the anger shown by whites in this book is purposeful cruelty, designed to maintain power. The shooting of unarmed African-Americans, like Trayvon Martin in Florida, is a continuation of the persecution of slaves by people like Ridgeway in the book.
Women and minorities face some of the problems of African-Americans: demonized and victimized.
Interesting to compare this book with "To Kill a Mockingbird", where the noble white man tries to save the helpless black man. That book is patronizing.
Here are some links of interest:
Video about slavery:
Animated map showing slave and free states, 1789-1861
Map of confederacy and union
Plot, characters, analysis:
Interview with author on radio show "Fresh Air"
Colson Whitehead must be praised for a remarkable achievement with this surreal vision of the torments of slavery and the promise of escape. What begins as a well-executed, if unremarkable, narrative of the sufferings of a young woman in slavery, evolves into a phantasmagorical cacophony of horrors as realism is engulfed by symbolism that represent the long history of cruelties inflicted on Africans and their descendants in America.
The structure of the novel imitates the epic quest tale, though perhaps here the better comparison would be to a journey into Dante's circles of hell. The metaphorical underground railroad becomes an actual railway line, with mysterious branches and burrows far into the South. Each state in the travels of Cora, a runaway slave, represent a particular type of oppression inflicted on African Americans. Imprisonment and torture; eradication through lynching; seemingly benign, scientific paternalism; forced sterilization or plans for amalgamation: it's all here. When we get to Cora's penultimate destination, we already know what must come, because it's the one horror we haven't yet visited.
Whitehead has tremendous writing talent, and his concise, deadly accurate prose can bring home the tragedy of the ideology of white supremacy in a simple sentence: "She'd never been the first person to open a book." In a comment on the inevitable reaction to the success of a black settlement: "That is how the European tribes operate, she said. If they can't control it, they destroy it." This isn't a novel that sermonizes, but rather envisions the conceits and deceits of a history founded on slavery: "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."
Here we are. Still caught up in this overly long tragedy that began with the idea that one "race" of humans could objectify, dehumanize, and own another "race" of humans. Whitehead illuminates the past in a brilliant and refreshing (if that word can be used in a novel of such dark events) style and structure that helps us see the threads running through these events. Threads that spiral ever onward.
I thoroughly enjoyed this piece of literature--as hard as it was, and it is HARD! Slavery is this nation's shame and this book illustrates that from many perspectives. I'm surprised so many reviewers dislike Cora; after all she'd been through, how could you NOT feel for this character. I'll place a longer, spoiler filled review on the blog later.
This was an interesting story. In this novel the Underground Railroad is a real railroad that travels underground to hidden stations. It was a unique twist to make this a real railroad. No one really seems to know how it was built, but it represents safety and escape for the slave. The story, however, was not about the railroad. It was about Cora, and how nowhere she goes is ever completely safe.
Well written, thought provoking, and intriguing.
Entertaining, if unmoving. I looked at the photo of the author on the inside back jacket and wondered if he was alive during these events? If not, then a case of historical misappropriation!
Thrilling. Heartbreaking. Joyous. Enraging. Honest.
I've seen people complain that Cora is not likable, but I don't agree at all. This is a woman who has suffered countless indignities and atrocities. Honestly she doesn't have to be likable. Complaining about the book because she isn't likable makes it seem as though the only important stories are those of likable people. They're not. And regardless of whether or not she was likable, her story was the story of so many women. And slavery does not produce jolly, happy people. It hurts, torments, twists, perverts. When I look at Cora I see something different. She's guarded and cautious, and fearful of getting close to people for fear of what would happen to them. She doesn't easily trust white people, because white people hurt her. Even with the fantastical elements, this book is so real. And I feel that the fantastical elements are an abstract expression of what running and freedom felt like.
A disappointing read, the first part about Ajarry started out good, I was really looking forward to this much acclaimed book. Then when I read the sentence "and the dog passed gas." Well, it had nothing to do with the prose of the paragraph, complete nonsense. The more I read, the worse the writing became, full of clichés, poor storytelling, even worse no research. When I read an historical fiction, I have my Wikipedia app open, looking up places, people, events, etc. This writer could learn a valuable lesson in writing from such authors as Cormac McCarthy, Richard Flanagan, who are both historical fiction writers, and back their stories up with facts. Sorry, Mr. Whitehead, not impressed, and what a shame because it had a great story line, and could have been a really good historical fiction for the ages. :( The author should have put more history in this hate the whitey book, such as black freemen owned slaves also...How this book won awards is beyond me, and I am a very well balanced reader, having read thousands of books in my life, and hoping to read thousands more :)
An average to ho hum book. I thought it was kind of detached from emotion. It literally was about an underground railroad that was not feasible to me. Really sadistic white people who excelled at torture & cruelty. It flicked from places & people & added unneeded information. I'm surprised it has won prizes.
An enslaved young woman Cora and fellow escapees travel The Underground Railroad from Georgia to somewhere in the North. The book chronicles their story and the story of ‘manifest destiny’ that underlies white America’s narrative, stories bound to conflict.
Whitehead’s book is a masterpiece of fact, fiction and fantasy, inventive and compelling. No wonder it has won awards numerous times. A must read!
I liked the idea of an actual underground railroad, but I just couldn't get very invested in the characters. Cora was a strong woman and I liked her, but maybe it would have been better first person.
Great storytelling. Cora is one of the strongest female characters I have come across. Brutally honest in its theme of the elusiveness of home and safety for African Americans in America. And now it has won the Pulitzer Prize!
I had some problems with this book. The story was compelling but the characters weren't fleshed out enough and telling their stories in such a detached way left me with less feeling for them than I should have had, Going back and forth in time was confusing to me. I'm not a big fan of fantasy and didn't really understand the purpose of using a real railroad instead of explaining the reality and no one has mentioned it but I really don't understand why the Tuskegee Institute Syphilis Experiment was portrayed wrongly here. If this addition was to bring more to the forefront the many ways that African Americans have been mistreated over the centuries it lost that power in the artifice. I spent more time looking up the real truths and being interested in those and not as interested in this book. Whitehead's writing is beautiful - I just wish it went together in a more cohesive way. It has spurred me, however, to read more about the real underground railroad and Tuskegee Institute Syphilis Experiment and that's a good thing.
Poetic, grimness (above or under-ground) fill my vision throughout, while I always hear words flowing in ballad.
Well-structured, in such a short volume of a long (unending) history, but it took me a while to figure out the (random or meticulous) placement of each "reward notice".
Some strong characters (black, white, good, evil), but I shed no tear, which is not bad for my reading. It's because the narrative style of the tragic existence with hope held high, or all have become too familiar.