37 reviews

The Underground Railroad: A Novel
by Colson Whitehead

Published: 2016-08-02
Hardcover : 320 pages
40 members reading this now
353 clubs reading this now
14 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 28 of 37 members
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from 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 ...
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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from 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 womanhoodâ??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 plannedâ??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 Whiteheadâ??s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphorâ??engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesarâ??s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the cityâ??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 Gulliverâ??s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journeyâ??hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the preâ??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 womanâ??s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Editorial Review

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THE first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
This was her grandmother talking. Coraâ??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 fortâ??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 sheâ??d be reunited with her father, down there in the dark. The survivors from her village told her that when her father couldnâ??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. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

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 railroad… Some might call freedom the dearest currency of all.” How does this quote shape the story for you?

6. How does Ethel’s backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora’s use of her home affect you?

7. What are your impressions of John Valentine’s vision for the farm?

8. When speaking of Valentine’s Farm, Cora explains “Even if the adults were free of the shackles that held them fast, bondage had stolen too much time. Only the children could take full advantage of their dreaming. If the white men let them.” What makes this so impactful both in the novel and today?

9. What do you think about Terrance Randall’s fate?

10. How do you feel about Cora’s mother’s decision to run away? How does your opinion of Cora’s mother change once you’ve learned about her fate?

11. Whitehead creates emotional instability for the reader: if things are going well, you get comfortable before a sudden tragedy. What does this sense of fear do to you as you’re reading?

12. Who do you connect with most in the novel and why?

13. How does the state-by-state structure impact your reading process? Does it remind you of any other works of literature?

14. The book emphasizes how slaves were treated as property and reduced to objects. Do you feel that you now have a better understanding of what slavery was like?

15. Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

16. Does The Underground Railroad change the way you look at the history of America, especially in the time of slavery and abolitionism?

Suggested by Members

Why did the author choose to depict the railroad as real?
by bcarroll (see profile) 10/10/17

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Jacki v. (see profile) 07/25/23

  "Writing did not work for me. "by Barb K. (see profile) 07/09/23

There were elements of the writing I really enjoyed. But still, I was so bored with this book. I fell asleep multiple times while reading it (atypical for me). Slavery is disgusting and repulsive. Over... (read more)

by Cindy B. (see profile) 02/19/23

by Michelle V. (see profile) 01/08/23

by Pam M. (see profile) 12/23/22

by Susan S. (see profile) 10/11/22

This book was amazing. Difficult to read some of the awful things perpetrated on the slaves but insightful none the less.
I will be reading more of this author’s books in the future.

by Pat B. (see profile) 05/20/22

by Shanon L. (see profile) 03/09/22

by Leah B. (see profile) 02/24/22

by renee f. (see profile) 11/05/21

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