The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson WhiteheadThe Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club) by Colson Whitehead
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on August 2nd 2016
Source: Publisher
Pages: 304
Buy from IndieBound

In Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, an infamous passage from slavery to freedom exists beyond the metaphor as a network of train tracks and cars secretly connecting Southern states. Though her life was shaped by her mother’s escape, Cora first learns about the Underground Railroad from Caesar, who asks her to join him in heading north. Followed close behind by Ridgeway, a hired slave catcher, the novel follows Cora as she navigates her terrifying escape, along with the different lives she encounters along the way.

There’s a moment in the book where Cora notes the grandeur of South Carolina’s twelve story Griffin Building, which soars above the rest of the structures and holds one of the only elevators for hundreds of miles. It’s the moment I realized Whitehead’s novel tweaks more than just the metaphorical railroad, it also disrupts time in an endlessly fascinating way.

“At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindness.”

Though the novel never reads like fantasy, once the Underground Railroad is introduced, Whitehead bends the timeline and creates environments that blend the established plot with elements from different historical periods. Each of Cora’s stops acts as a sort of lens into the near future and a different way of seeing slavery’s impact down the line. It’s difficult to pin down without spoiling, but so subtle and masterfully done that it’s possible to miss, especially when gripped by Cora’s story.

This all adds up to a novel that can be viewed from endless angles with a deep cast of characters that contribute to the story in multiple ways. It’s no wonder The Underground Railroad is the newest pick for Oprah’s Book Club—it’s a brilliant novel just begging to be discussed.

  • I downloaded the sample and am planning to get to this one. I’m really glad to hear it doesn’t read like fantasy, as I was a little turned off when I first heard there was a magical realism element.

  • RK

    I’ve heard so many great things about this one! Great review. Loving the diverse reads that have been published this year (Homegoing, The Golden Son, etc.).

  • JoAnn @ Lakeside Musing

    This sounds like a winner. The audio version is getting high praise, too, so my only decision is whether to read or listen!

  • Ti Reed

    I saw that it was picked by Oprah, which usually means it’s pretty good. I know she has people help her select books but they always seem to select good discussion books.

  • I had heard Oprah picked this one. She’s raved about it so much and I’ve heard others praising it as well. I’m really excited to read it. I have it on my kindle, but am thinking of buying a hardcover copy instead. I’m thinking its a book I actually want to hold in my hands and turn the pages. I loved your review of it – definitely makes me want to ensure that I’m paying close attention to what I’m reading, so I don’t miss anything :)

    • It’s one of those rare books that you can totally understand and appreciate just through a surface read or you can get a ton more out of it by paying close attention and really digging in…love that so much.

  • Amanda

    Oprah so messed up my reading schedule! I can’t wait to start this.

  • I got this novel at BEA but haven’t had time for it yet. I’m interested that it blends different historical periods; it sounds like an innovative approach to the Underground Railway genre.

    • I picked it up early on a whim just a few days before they announced the early publication, so it totally worked in my favor – definitely recommend it when you get a chance!

  • Sounds like a must read!

  • I’m interested to try this one. I read Zone One by Colson Whitehead, which was a bad idea on several levels (it was snowing out and I was hugely cranky; I hate zombie stories), and it felt like THE MOST writing anyone had ever put in a book. Not a successful read. But I want to give him another try anyway, and I feel like if I’ll ever like anything by him EVER, this book would be the one. (I’m not putting unrealistically high stakes on it or anything. :p)

    • I actually think I started Zone One and got about 50 pages in before I gave up. I read and didn’t love his poker memoir. So, there’s definitely something about this one that got me and really just worked!

  • I’ve heard so many good things about this. Love that it can be viewed from so many angles, that’s always satisfying!

  • Kailana

    I have this. I just need to find time to settle in with it!

  • I had super high expectations for this one and while I certainly enjoyed it, there was something intangible about it that fell flat for me. I’m not sure what it was exactly.

  • Great description of this novel! I don’t think I quite got what it was about until reading your review. Sounds fascinating!

  • Oh goodness, I knew this one was bound to be big but I couldn’t have anticipated just how spellbinding it’s turned out to be for so many readers. I was tempted to pick it up at a little bookshop I went into today, but I might just hop on the library holds list and wait my turn.

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