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  • Writer's pictureJudith D Collins

The Underground Railroad

ISBN: 9780385537049

Publisher: Doubleday

Publication Date: 9/13/2016

Format: Hardcover

My Rating: 5 Stars From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent, wrenching, thrilling 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 hellish for all the slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, and they plot their escape. Matters do not go as planned — Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her — but they manage to find a station and head north.

In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is not a metaphor — a secret network of tracks and tunnels has been built beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, where both find work in a city that at first seems like a haven. But the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens — and Ridgeway, the relentless slave-catcher sent to find her, arrives in town. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing journey, state-by-state, seeking true freedom.

Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey — Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in states in the pre-Civil War era. 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.

My Review

A special thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Colson Whitehead delivers a gritty literary historical fictional suspense, a profound gripping journey THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, two young runaway slaves and their courageous fight for freedom and power.

Whitehead creatively crafts and weaves a story in a magical way. In Cora's world, the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad under the ground, leading from the slavery bondage to freedom in the North. History with a modern day twist. Relevant to today's world!

What if each station represents a state of possibility? The courage of leaving, risking, stepping off the tragedy of the plantation. Can you keep going once you have started? No turning back.

"Where Colson Whitehead Got the Idea for The Underground Railroad." Watch Video The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century enslaved people of African descent in the United States in efforts to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives

The escape network was not literally underground nor a railroad.

It was figuratively "underground" in the sense of being an underground resistance. It was known as a "railroad" by way of the use of rail terminology in the code.

Whitehead intensifies the tension with his own code of metaphors, making this an exceptional read for both those interested in historical details of slavery, and those readers enjoying a twist of fiction to make things even more fascinating. The what if? It could be a "real live" underground rail system?

The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, and personal assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers. Participants generally organized in small, independent groups; this helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting "stations" along the route but knew few details of their immediate area.

Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one- way station to the next. "Conductors" on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves-either escaped or manumitted, and Native Americans. Without the presence and support of free black residents, there would have been almost no chance for fugitive slaves to pass into freedom unmolested. Wikipedia

Cora’s grandmother had been sold a few times, passed between slavers. Each thing had a value. In America, people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won’t survive at trip across the ocean. A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money. If you were a thing – a cart or a horse or a slave- your value determined your possibilities.

Caesar approached Cora about the Underground Railroad. In Georgia, Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation. Caesar comes from a small farm in Virginia owned by a petite old widow. After her death she left no will. He was later sold south, with its fearsome legends of cruelty and abomination.

The Underground railroad could help, with its secret trunk lines and mysterious routes. The idea of escape overwhelmed her. Their well laid plans do not go as they had imagined. They are being hunted.

Caesar was like no colored man she had ever met.Antislavery literature was illegal in this part of the country. Abolitionists and sympathizers who came down to Georgia and Florida were run off, flogged, and abused by mobs, tarred and feathered.

There was so much possibility traveling from state to state. The tunnels, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables. They soon were in South Carolina. Ridgeway had become a proper and evil slave catcher.

Soon she is forced to leave and continues to try and outrun the catchers. They made little progress on a course of action, struggling with the problem of whom to turn to and the possible reaction from the other colored residents.

According to the law, most of them were still property, their names on pieces of paper in cabinets kept by the United States Government. For the moment, warning people was all they could do.

From Georgia, South Carolina to North Carolina. In NC the Negros did not exist except at the ends of the ropes. Imprisoned in an attic.

More slaves led to more cotton, which led to more money to buy more land to farm more cotton. Whites outnumbered slaves two to one in NC, but in Louisiana and Georgia, the populations neared parity. Just over the border in SC, the number of blacks surpassed that of whites by more than a hundred thousand. It was not difficult to imagine the sequence when the slave cast off his chains in pursuit of freedom—and retribution.

In Georgia, Kentucky, South America and the Caribbean Isles, the Africans turned on their masters in short but disturbing encounters.

As the slave owners’ enforcers, and patrollers were the law: white, crooked, and merciless. They could stop anyone. Slaves caught off the plantation needed passes unless they wanted to go to jail or a beating. Free blacks carried proof or risked being conveyed into the clutches of slavery, and still they often were smuggled to the auction block. Rogue blacks who did not surrender, could be shot.

North Carolina would emerge in the most advantageous position of all slave states. Purchased existing slaves from farmers at favorable rates, just as Great Britain had done decades earlier. The other states of the cotton empire absorbed the stock; Florida and Louisiana in their growth needed colored hands. The new race laws forbid colored men and women from setting foot on NC soil.

She pictured two things: a contented, hard-won life in a northern city or death. Dreams and fantasies. She thought of the white boy she had killed. Whether in the fields or underground, or in an attic room, American remained her warden. What world it is that makes a living prison into your only haven.

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. Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.

The Freedom Trail.

On to Tennessee, escaping wildfires. The state was cursed. The blaze and the disease—to justice. The whites got what they deserved. For enslaving her people, for massacring another race, for stealing the very land itself.

But, she thought, if people received their just portion of misfortune, what had she do to bring her troubles on herself? Every state was different. No chains fastened her misfortunes to her character or actions. Her skin was black and this was how the world treated black people.

References from Gulliver’s Travels, roving from peril to peril, each new island a new predicament to solve before he could return home. If Caesar figured out the route home, he’d never travel again. Unless Cora came with him.

Traveling from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana, Cora has to maneuver her way away from Ridgeway, and all the other enemies which cross her path. Is America a delusion?

A wonderful pick for Oprah Book Club, rich in history, from the heartbreaking injustice of slavery, the author infuses fact and fiction for an engaging experience. From horror, cruelty, harrowing, sorrow, betrayal, pain, to courage, hope, and redemption. The costs of slavery. Each time Cora travels she has to reinvent herself and overcome the devastation of their race, while focused on survival. Danger surrounds her. Risking it all for pursuit of freedom.

I have a very serious editorial calendar, planning the reading and reviewing of all my books to keep organized by date of release. I had THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, set for Sept 13 (its original release date); however, came to my attention at the last minute, it was coming OUT a month early, in a surprise announcement from Oprah as her next title. My apologies for the delay in posting (when I thought I was a week early). Good news, in more hands sooner.

As you read, this incredible story, readers will see the haunting parallels with our current world situation today - A world filled with hatred, racism, and terror. Some are still living in the darkness of the past.

“The white race 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 exit, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

Ideal for book clubs and numerous discussions: A remarkable story, and a highly talented author, worthy of Oprah’s endorsement!

Having read Thomas Mullen’s upcoming Darktown, (9/13) then Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, (9/13) and currently reading upcoming Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, (10/11) --there is a common thread. In addition to each of these award-winning authors' respective talent of storytelling, and the privilege of receiving early reading copies, there is a combined critical timely message:

Essential concerns of our time: prejudice, race, and justice. I commend these authors for tackling these difficult (much needed) and thought-provoking topics. The struggles and courage of those who have had to fight for freedom we all take for granted.

As people worldwide face their own beliefs of privilege, power, and race-- Racial awareness in our country is a critical key issue today and the more education, messages, and books regarding these controversial topics—To take notice—take charge--the better: in order to make our world a better place. To live filled with love, equality, and peace

In addition to the digital copy provided, I also purchased the audiobook, narrated by Bahni Turpin for a spellbinding performance.

Review Links:




I find the route and timeline fascinating and the book will have readers going back to history books and further references:

To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. "Conductors" led or transported the fugitives from station to station.

A conductor sometimes pretended to be a slave in order to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the conductor would direct the runaways to the North. Slaves traveled at night, about 10–20 miles (15–30 km) to each station. They rested, and then a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way. They would stop at the so-called "stations" or "depots" during the day and rest. The stations were often located in barns, under church floors, or in hiding places in caves and hollowed-out riverbanks.

The resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat were given the code names "stations" and "depots," which were held by "station masters". "Stockholders" gave money or supplies for assistance. Using biblical references, fugitives referred to Canada as the "Promised Land" and the Ohio River as the "River Jordan", which marked the boundary between slave states and free states.

Editorial Reviews

“Kept me up at night, had my heart in my throat, almost afraid to turn the next page. Get it, then get another copy for someone you know because you are definitely going to want to talk about it once you read that heart-stopping last page.” --Oprah Winfrey, (Oprah’s Book Club 2016 selection)

Colson Whitehead (Credit: Knopf Doubleday/Erin Patrice O'brien)

“[A] potent, almost hallucinatory novel... It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift…He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.” --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times “[T]hink Toni Morrison (Beloved), Alex Haley (Roots); think 12 Years a Slave…[A]n electrifying novel…a great adventure tale, teeming with memorable characters…Tense, graphic, uplifting and informed, this is a story to share and remember.” --People, (Book of the Week) "With this novel, Colson Whitehead proves that he belongs on any short list of America's greatest authors--his talent and range are beyond impressive and impossible to ignore. The Underground Railroad is an American masterpiece, as much a searing document of a cruel history as a uniquely brilliant work of fiction." --Michael Schaub, NPR “Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, The Underground Railroad marks a new triumph for Whitehead…[A] book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era...The canon of essential novels about America's peculiar institution just grew by one.” --Ron Charles, Washington Post

The first thing to say about Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad, is that it’s really good — good, in fact, in just about every way a novel can be good…[A] fully realized masterpiece, a weird blend of history and fantasy that will have critics rightfully making comparisons to Toni Morrison and Gabriel García-Márquez… Lovely and rare, dark and imaginative, The Underground Railroad is Whitehead’s best work and an important American novel.” --The Boston Globe

Oprah Book Club - Colson Whitehead

About the Author

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead was born in 1969, and was raised in Manhattan. After graduating from Harvard College, he started working at the Village Voice, where he wrote reviews of television, books, and music.

His first novel, The Intuitionist, concerned intrigue in the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and a winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award.

John Henry Days followed in 2001, an investigation of the steel-driving man of American folklore. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. The novel received the Young Lions Fiction Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

The Colossus of New York is a book of essays about the city. It was published in 2003 and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Apex Hides the Hurt (2006) is a novel about a "nomenclature consultant" who gets an assignment to name a town, and was a recipient of the PEN/Oakland Award.

Sag Harbor, published in 2009, is a novel about teenagers hanging out in Sag Harbor, Long Island during the summer of 1985. It was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.

Zone One (2011), about post-apocalyptic New York City, was a New York Times Bestseller.

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death, a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker, came appreared in 2014.

The Underground Railroad, a novel, will be published in the fall of 2016.

Colson Whitehead's reviews, essays, and fiction have appeared in a number of publications, such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper's and Granta.

He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, A Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Dos Passos Prize, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

He has taught at the University of Houston, Columbia University, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, New York University, Princeton University, Wesleyan University, and been a Writer-in-Residence at Vassar College, the University of Richmond, and the University of Wyoming. He lives in New York City. Read More






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