The Underground Railroad
A NovelBook - 2016
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.
From the critics
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pg 52 "The southern white man was spat from the loins of the devil and there was no way to forecast his next evil act."
pg 116 "Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren't looking, alluring and ever out of reach."
pg 175 Donald thought....."Chattel slavery was an affront to God, and slavers an aspect of Satan."
pg 214 "Time enough for Cora to take stock of her journey from Randall and make a thick braid of her misfortunes."
pg 224 Ridgeway says..."You heard my name when you were a pickaninny...The name of punishment, dogging every fugitive step and every thought of running away."
pg 234 "One thing about the south, it was not patient when it came to killing negroes."
"Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man's equal." - page 139
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It was worth waiting four months for The Underground Railroad to become available. Once I got it, I finished it in two or three days. Mable was kidnapped from Africa and taken to Georgia, where she was made to be a slave. She had a daughter, Cora, who is the main character of the book. Mable ran away, and was never heard from again, much to the sadness and anger of her young daughter Cora. The daily fears, indignities, and brutalities of life as a slave were described, as were the gamut of relationships among the slaves. Cora ran away, was caught, ran away again, let her guard down and was again caught, and again ran away. She was helped along the way by kind people of both races, some who accepted the danger they put themselves in and some who didn't but couldn't just do nothing. There was much, much sadness and I found myself hoping it was more fiction than historical fiction.
Cora is a young woman living on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her mother had escaped years ago and Cora carries the feelings of abandonment and resentment with her still. Life is harsh for the slaves but particularly for Cora as she is ostracized even from her fellow Africans. When she is offered the chance to escape on the Underground Railroad, she initially refuses. It is only after a brutal beating from the plantation owner, and promises of more to come, that Cora takes the opportunity to escape via the Railroad. During the escape, a man is killed, and the bounty on her head grows exponentially. As she travels from state to state, Cora experiences new horrors and moves closer to the North while being pursued by the relentless slave catcher Ridgeway. Along Cora’s journey we meet abolitionists, opportunists, and hypocrites who all play a role in the road to freedom.
In this coming of age tale, author Colson Whitehead envisions the Underground Railroad not as a metaphor, but as a real underground train network with conductors and station agents. This does nothing to take away from the very human experiences Cora lives through in this alternative history tale.
This book functions as a meditation on slavery during pre-civil war America. Cora’s journey to freedom takes her to different states, which allows Whitehead to describe the many horrors of slavery. In one state, Cora is treated well and given lodgings and a job but there are dark secrets hidden beneath the shiny exterior. In subsequent states, we see various other terrors including hangings, corpse trails, and mobs. While Whitehead reimagines these into a single narrative, the experiences he describes did occur in America’s history and it’s important that they are remembered.
The characterization in this latest selection in Oprah’s book club is also excellent. The various characters are fully realized people with backgrounds and emotions. In this way, we as readers have larger insight into the slave owners and slave catchers and what their motivations were and how they played the roles that they did in history.
Author Colson Whitehead is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and bestselling author. He employs his skills to craft a page turner of an historical novel. The chapters mostly come from Cora’s perspective, but interspersed are chapters from the perspective of other characters. The result is a novel with enormous depth and lush descriptions while still being highly readable.
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