The Underground Railroad

I have been very neglectful with my Book Club Blog and for that I apologise, but I am back and will do my up most to keep this blog updated from now on!! Sitting here with my new hip and limited movement, I thought that I would have hours to spare to update the pages and blog to my heart’s content but it is surprising how busy one can be with limited movement!! (Prison Break Season 1 2 3 and 4 come to mind , but, there, I digress!!)

Last Tuesday at Book Club The Underground Railway was the chosen read for the month of April and therefore the topic of discussion. Naturally, cheese, bread, crackers, savouries, cake, flapjacks and wine were an added bonus!


After in length discussions on hip replacements and Brazil (me deliberating the former and Kate the latter after her awesome and recent trip to South America)  we finally got round to the book. Personally, I found The Underground Railroad a difficult read and the subject of much debate. It was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone, and I use ‘enjoyed’ lightly due to the subject matter, but there were lots of conflicting and difference of opinions thrown around during the evening. The book is a very cleverly written saga about slavery in all its brutal forms, its extreme brutality and its survival and consequences. Lots of issues were discussed including the following among many others: –

Would it have been better written in the 1st person rather than the 3rd?

How enjoyable was Whitehead’s style of writing?

How exactly did we interpreted​ the underground railroad?

How well-developed were his characters?

What was Mabel’s role in the story?

Is there a correlation between this story and society today?

The book cleverly crosses the genres of historic and literary fiction, and there is plenty of social justice narration. It is a book with big ideas and daring commentary which keeps you questioning your beliefs about race, freedom and, as a Brit,  what you really  know of ‘The American Dream’ and American history, in fact, it can be linked to any exploitation, any time, anywhere. Having lived in the South of the US for a number of years I felt that I could relate some parts of the writing to the life I experienced back in the 80s in the seep south. And a part that hit home were these words from the book – “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. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, or its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.” Food for thought there!

Personally, I struggled to finish the book,  but you must persevere to the penultimate chapter, ‘Mabel’, to finally feel some emotion that I believed the book lacked ( and by the way, on the subject of lack of emotion, I believe out of our group, I was a lone voice!) I am not saying that it was devoid of emotion of any kind, as Cora, the protagonist of this story faces more tragedy than any human being should ever have to experience in a lifetime, but I did not bond with her. I did not feel for her or Caesar, come to that. I would have liked to have read and experienced her story as seen through her eyes and therefore written in the 1st person rather than the 3rd would have been my preference. Yes Cora suffers. She is a teenage slave who runs away from the plantation in Georgia she’s been sold to and embarks on this journey of terror to find freedom and when she finds it, like any other, she will do anything so that she will never have to go back. But I felt no form of empathy or concern for her and Ceasar, unfortunately and when Caesar disappeared half way through with no clear explanation for his disappearance, it didn’t seem to matter. Also, if you are expecting to know more about the Underground Railroad itself then be prepared to be disappointed as it is not incorporate into the story as one would have maybe hoped. The title is rather deceptive there.

For the most part the story is written chronologically but Colson does tend to jump back to the past on occasions which made the narrative rather disjointed, in my opinion. The bumpy ride is a bit of a roller coaster and, like the railway, takes us into unexpected directions. We meet many strong, brave, hunted, hounded, evil, despicable characters on the journey but also a number of ancillary characters, who seem out of place at the time of meeting and easily forgotten until we revisit them as we progress through the story. It is  a powerful and at times brutal story depicting the harsh treatment of slaves and a culmination of history from the sterilization of women to the development of the Klan. It is devastating and it is provocative. It leaves you feeling uncomfortable. It is thought-provoking and a great book choice for a book club as it certainly sparks off some great discussions. I always wonder at the ways individuals can interpret a common read in so many different ways. That is the beauty of Book Club!

‘The Underground Railroad’ is a recommended read by us all  ( me too, believe it or not!)  but it has so much to unpack  that this one-sided review by me alone can’t do it justice. Hopefully, some of the club members will write their side of the discussion in the comment below and I would love to hear from you too, so please leave your comments below for discussion. Thank you.

Before leaving I have included some articles for you to read and a video of Colson Whithead himself talking about his little gem of a book.

Article 1

Article 2


One thought on “The Underground Railroad

  1. The Underground Railroad

    This book has been on my radar for a while. I saw that it had won a Pulitzer Prize and was obviously interested from there. Winning a Pulitzer is not neccesserily indicative of quality. Cormac McCarthy, one of the greatest writers of our time, won in 2007 for The Road. But conversely, so did The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a decent but bloated novel that could have used a gargantuan edit. I was relieved to find that The Underground Railroad was not only impressive but also deeply disturbing. I say “relieved” as a novel about slavery that doesn’t disturb you is pretty much a failure.
    The author simultaneously describes the horrific violence imposed upon the slaves and also, i feel, holds back a little. The violence is treated with a sort of nonchalance which would make sense considering the relationship between owner and slave. Some owners hated, yes, but many of them were simply indifferent, seeing the black men and women not as people but as livestock. Sometimes, even less than livestock. One scene describes the not only murder but torture of a slave who attempted to escape. The white slave owners do not stand and watch this torture – they ignore it completely and enjoy their party. It really is a kick in the teeth. But at the same time, i had the feeling that the author could have been even more graphic but chose not to. This could be due to the previously mentioned idea that slavery is portrayed as a part of life and not a tragedy to these horrid people. It could, of course, be simply that some people abhor violence and have weak stomachs, but i find this unlikely.
    This raises another view that i had about the book, and particularly Cora, the protagonist. Some of the criticism in our book club concerned the idea that Cora was not particularly well developed and some of us had trouble empathising with her. I did not disagree exactly – but i also felt that this was done intentionally. I believe that Cora is not just an individual in this story. I believe that she represents the plight of the black community in general, and for this reason, Cora is purposely left as a sort of blank slate – to represent that she could be any of the slaves trying to better their life and escape their life (and death) sentence.
    Cora’s travels through the darkest parts of America in the 19th century fascinated me, especially since every stop on the railroad gave way to new, unsuspecting horror. Cora escapes one hell and finds herself in another, even though she may not realise it immediately. I have read many true tales of slavery before as part of my Slave Narrative course in University but this was my first time reading a fictional one. I was certainly not disappointed. The true narratives, such as those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, are disturbing, of course, but you react with more interest than emotion – it’s factual and therefore not trying to elicit an emotional response, neccesserily. But being fictional, this allowed Whitehead to doctor and embellish some of the difficulties the slaves could have experienced. Not that slavery is romanticised at all – just that some ideas are better than others when it comes to creating fiction. For example, the book using the unusual but original idea that the railroad itself is literal and not a metaphor impressed me as it meant that the long, arduous journeys on the road (that would have been in real life) could be sped up and more interesting ideas could develop in place of it. More character interactions and events and less tiresome “on the road again”, foot-dragging meant more story, and that is ideal for me.
    I did not love this novel. I did not finish it thinking “i have to tell all my friends about this book”. It isn’t an exciting book. But it was never trying to be. I think it was simply trying to be an entertaining novel from an original perspective on slavery in America in the 1800’s. And i say it succeeded. I demolished the book, finishing it in two sittings. I also felt conflicted – i wanted Cora to escape from more dangerous situations and continue to be a heroic black and feminist hero. But then i reconsidered. Cora went through enough. I hope she escaped. I hope to never hear from her again.

    **** out of *****


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