ARC Reviews, Book Club Recommendations, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Does this book really need any introduction?

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theundergroundrailroadAuthor: Colson Whitehead

Genre: Historical Fiction

Version: eBook

Publisher: Doubleday

Source: NetGalley

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Book Synopsis:

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.

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My Thoughts:

The Underground Railroad is told through the experiences of Cora, a third generation slave.  Cora’s Grandmother, Ajarry, was kidnaped from her village and transported to America, then forced into slavery and sold into the Randall family.  Here is where Ajarry lives and dies, and where Cora is eventually brought into the world.  Cora is born into a life of turmoil that no one wants for their child.  Her mother, Mabel becomes the first runaway to escape a Randall plantation, leaving behind everything to gain freedom, even her only daughter.  From an early age, Cora has to fend for herself if she wants to survive, and that is just what Cora is: a survivor…

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

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 This book is the history of slavery in America, shown to us through Cora’s journey.  At its root, this book really isn’t about Cora, or any of the other characters for that matter, so if you are looking for in depth character development, or a character driven story, this isn’t going to be it.  Cora represents all slaves and their collective experiences with the secondary characters serving as catalysts to move Cora along on her quest.  This is a very plot driven story full of adversity.  The story almost reminded me of Homer’s The Odyssey.  Like Odysseus, Cora has to face many challenges along the way in her quest for freedom.

“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery.  We can’t.  Its scars will never fade.”…”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.”

In The Underground Railroad, Colson takes a few liberties with regards to the historical timeline and with his portrayal of the underground railroad itself.  The goal here was to be more informative then historically accurate.  Cora’s journey takes us from Georgia, to South Carolina, to North Carolina, to Tennessee, to Indiana and beyond.  Each stop in Cora’s journey she faces a new horror in the history of slavery.  Horrors like forced sterilization, the Tuskegee Study, “coon shows” (more commonly known as minstrel shows or “blackface.”), and the “freedom trail.”

Whitehead’s depiction of the underground railroad was very refreshing and unexpected, I was not anticipating the touch of magic realism.  In reality, the Underground Railroad was a system of routes in which slaves would escape from their owners to the northern states or Canada.  Along the way, there would be safe houses (stations) with people (conductors) who would help the slaves along the route to freedom.

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Sophy Hollington

 This is how slavery should be depicted in literature: raw and uncensored.  I “learned” about slavery in school, but nothing like this.  Men, women, and children were violently kidnaped from their villages, placed on overcrowded ships (where they faced illness, abuse, and deplorable conditions) and sent to America.  Once in America, they were paraded naked in front of people and sold like livestock, forced to live and work ((and by work of course I mean grueling back breaking physical labor)) in horrifying conditions, abused physically ((and by abused physically, I mean beaten to near death)), sexually, and mentally… the list goes on.  It is one thing to read about slavery in text books, but it is a whole new ballgame to experience it in fiction.  Text books are so matter of fact which feels detached, whereas in fiction, the reader is able to form an emotional connection to the situation.

Reading The Underground Railroad was uncomfortable.  It is graphic, horrifying, and heartbreaking.  I felt ashamed of my race.  That’s right, I said it.  We should feel ashamed.  Our country was built on slavery and racist ideals, which is something that we have conveniently forgotten over the years.  I think every white person should read this book.  While we cannot go back and change the past, we can learn from it and make an effort to continue to educate ourselves for a better future.   This book is such an important reminder of where we have been, and how much further we still need to go.

“The whites come to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs.  But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others.”…”She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her.  The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men.  Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom”

Going through some of the negative reviews for this one, I couldn’t help but feel many of these people are missing the purpose of this book.  You should go into this book paying attention to what Whitehead is trying to convey with this book: the brutality and oppression of slavery, rather than characterization or a smooth flowing plotline.  I literally read a bad review that said they didn’t like this book because it was too tragic… Seriously?!  Of course it’s tragic!  It is a book about slavery…  Did they expect puppies and rainbows? Obviously the truth is too hard for some people to hear.

“But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world.  And no one wanted to hear it.”

The Underground Railroad would make for an excellent book club selection.  Oprah selected it for her book club, Oprah’s Book Club, even before the book was published.  Rumor has it she even pulled some strings to have the book published a month early.  She liked it THAT much.  You can read a fascinating interview she did with Whitehead here → Oprah’s Interview With Colson Whitehead.

“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.”

This is probably one of the most powerful novels I have ever read.  I can see why it was selected as one of the winners of the 2016 National Book AwardSince finishing this book, I’ve often found myself thinking about it.  It seems that this one is going to be one of those books that sticks with me for years to come.

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My Rating:

5-Star Rating System

*Big thanks to Doubleday for providing me a copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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About the Author:

colsonwhiteheadI’m the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. I’ve also written a book of essays about my home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, I live in New York City.

My latest book, The Underground Railroad, is an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

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43 thoughts on “Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead”

  1. I think this might be my favorite review of yours ❤ Sometimes I also feel people are missing the point of a particular book. Haha Too tragic… okay, so maybe pick up a romantic comedy instead lol

    However, it's true that I've read that the book was too heavy and not really "entertaining" :/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Although your review is awesome and the book sounds great, it isn’t exactly the subject that gets my butterflies flying around like crazy – being a Brazilian kid, I had to study slavery so much with all kinds of depth from elementary school to college that nowadays the topic is a bit common place for me =(
    I feel awful saying something like this about such an important and relevant topic, but I admit I wouldn’t pick up this book outside an assigment – thanks so much, school! YOU RUINED ME! #dramatic

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think you should feel awful for that! I think it’s great you are so educated in this topic, because I sure wasn’t. I grew up in predominantly white schools (by predominantly I mean I could count on one hand the number of students who were of color at my high school) so I don’t feel like slavery got the dedication it deserved in my history classes. When it was discussed, it was glossed over and toned down. This book really opened my eyes to how horrific slavery really was.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aww, thanks, Amanda! I was feeling pretty bad here for a moment >.< I totally get your meaning, tho. Despite our detailed education on the subject, sadly I also studied at schools lacking diversity until high school =( Society is too messed up!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! Great review. You shared so much more about the writing and story structure than I have seen anywhere else. I rally appreciate that because those are so important to me. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fantastic review, Amanda!!! I do hope to read this book next year and am very happy to see you like it so much.
    Before anyone reads this book, they should obviously know that it’s about slavery and will therefore be tragic. Some people look to criticize for no reason other than to criticize.
    Anyway, thank you for your thorough and insightful review. I will hunt for a hardcover early next year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. I can understand people not caring for the book because it is very plot driven and there is a lot going on, but not because it was too sad… I for one thought this was a very eye opening experience. I actually just finished Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult which is more about modern day racism. This book really gave me a lot to think about as well. I am really looking forward to writing my review for this one as well.

      Thanks for reading Naz!

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  5. It makes me sad when books about such important and yes hard subjects are criticized for being to sad! I mean if you don’t want it to be sad read a contemporary don’t read a historical fiction! Gah people are strange. I loved your review and can’t wait to read this book 🙂

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    1. Right?! I can see some people not liking this book because of how it’s written. It is very plot driven and fast paced. It’s not one of those books where you feel a deep connection with the characters. HOWEVER you really can’t complain that a book about slavery is too tragic… ((Facepalm))

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    1. I definitely recommend this book if you want to learn the uncensored version of slavery. It is definitely a hard book to read, but also an important one. Like I said in my review, this book is more about telling the horrors of slavery and is very plot driven, so if you are a reader who need to form a strong connection with characters, you may not care for HOW this book is written… if that make sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I meant to comment on your review yesterday, it’s fantastic! I had this book on my library wait list but then read some negative reviews and cancelled it but after reading yours I’m reconsidering. When a fellow book lover says a book may be one of the most powerful they’ve ever read, I take notice:) The fact that you said it’s hard to make a deep connection with the characters is my only hesitation. I usually need to feel a connection with at least 1 character. I’m going to try the sample and go from there. I really loved your review though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I think this is one of those books that the message is more important than any of the characters. I found myself highlighting all kinds of thought provoking passages… For me, I didn’t need to connect with any of the characters because I was so wrapped up in the purpose of the book… It is so hard to explain. If you are hesitant then I’d wait and borrow it from the library.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Yay great to read your thoughts and with the way things are it’s so important to read and promote books like this one! Also, I still have to read it, I need to stop waiting for that perfect moment. I just know it’ll be a powerful read and want to have uninterrupted reading time. Also also, love your pic, so cozy! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m so excited to read this for myself!! I’m particularly happy to hear that slavery is being depicted accurately in this book! There’s nothing more shocking than really delving into the horrors of slavery and the treatment of the African people involved for the first time; it breaks your heart.

    This sounds like such a wonderful book and hopefully more people read it if it’s so beautifully informative! Great review Amanda 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!!! I’ve read books that depicted slavery before but nothing like this. All of the previous books that included slavery were all written by white people, who can tend to water it down. This was my first book about slavery written by a person of color, so there was no holding back. I grew up very sheltered and privileged. Reading books like this really put things into perspective for me. I hope you “enjoy” this as much as I did!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a lovely review. I liked The Underground Railroad, but I don’t think as much as you. There were some inconsistencies that through me off, but you have almost convinced me that I was missing something, which is not easy to do. I am a fairly stubborn reader.

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    1. Inconsistencies in the timeline and historical accuracy I’m assuming? Or something else?

      You never know, it could be less that you were missing something and more of me seeing something differently. That’s the great thing about books though, two people can read the same story and walk away with two very different opinions ❤️ It could just be that Whiteheads writing style did not suit your tastes.

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  10. If people want to avoid the warm and fuzzy glossed over version of slavery that we learn in public schools in the States, I always recommend reading slave narratives, starting with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass followed by Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Terrific review – this was my first read of 2017 and it was AMAZING, earned every ounce of those five stars. I also still find myself thinking about it. I’ve enjoyed some of Whitehead’s other novels but this one is most certainly a masterpiece. I’ve been meaning to visit your blog for a while – I keep seeing your comments on other blogs I follow. I finally remembered! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. He really does. I’ve read The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Sag Harbor. Of those, John Henry Days was my favorite, but it’s also the one I read ages ago, so my memory is very fuzzy! But it was a neat mix of historical-ish, speculative-ish fiction about the folklore of John Henry alongside a contemporary storyline about a black journalist covering a John Henry festival. It sounds a little weird, and it is, and I really need to read it again! Sag Harbor is more of a straightforward coming of age book, very enjoyable. The Intuitionist is part noir mystery, part speculative fiction about elevator inspectors in a New York City that feels realistic but doesn’t exist. Also strange, in a good way. I really feel like he can do anything. Apparently, I’m a cheerleader for him! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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