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Summary

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2017

National Book Award Winner 2016

Amazon.Com Number One Book of the Year 2016

Number One New York Times Best Seller

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead's razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated boxcar pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world.

As Whitehead brilliantly recreates 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 the story of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

©2016 Colson Whitehead (P)2016 Little Brown Book Group

Critic reviews

"Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime." ( The Guardian)
"Luminous, furious, wildly inventive." ( The Observer)
"Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I've read this year." ( Stylist)
"Dazzling." ( New York Review of Books)

What listeners say about The Underground Railroad

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Approach with caution - it's historical fiction..

I had high expectations for this book, given the many prizes and accolades which it has won, and the premise is certainly interesting - a brutal re-imagining of a brutal time in America's history in which men, women and children were bought, sold, abused and disposed of like property. The concept sounds interesting at first - the actual, historical underground which was a network of people who smuggled escaped slaves to freedom out of the South, becomes a literal underground railroad which has been (somehow) carved out of the rock under the very feet of the white slavers of the south and runs for hundreds of miles through a series of secret stations like some sort of macabre roller coaster.

I'm sure this sounded like a great concept to work with, and something which a talented writer like Whitehead could take on, but for me it quickly became an irritating distraction, as it is never made tangible or believable, so every time it crops up in the story to conveniently whisk the protagonist out of one hellish scene and into the next, hate-induced racial nightmare, I found myself being pulled back out of the story. I generally enjoy magical realism as a genre, but this book is claiming to be historical fiction, and the blurring of this logical impossibility with the real suffering which slaves endured felt trite and contrived.

I am also concerned at the significant number of reviewers who don't appear to realise that most of the events depicted in the book never actually happened, and are quoting elements like the 'freedom road' a gruesome avenue of lynched slaves hanging from trees for miles on end, as being 'new facts' which they've learned through reading this book!

The writing style is fast paced and there's plenty of action, but I struggled to connect with any of the characters, and whilst the narration is well crafted, some of the dialogue feels stilted and dry. The narration is good, although limited somewhat by the dialogue and the lack of character development.

To my mind the author substitutes real character development for lurching plot devices which usually center around Tarantino-esque scenes of horrific, yet casually administered violence and depravity against the slaves. Whilst much of this violence is based in historical fact, the almost comic-book exaggeration of events lessens, rather than heightens the real horror and suffering experienced by millions of slaves. I didn't quite understand the intent in creating an 'alternative universe' in which history has taken a divergent path, as the actual stories of real slaves and the genuine courage and sacrifice of those people who ran the underground railway is a far more compelling basis for a story. I fully appreciate that you're not supposed to 'like' or necessarily 'enjoy' a book with such a heavy and important subject matter, but I do expect to be moved, and find myself emotionally involved. And unfortunately, apart from occasional moments, that didn't happen with this book for me, and the so the trade-off for the relentless gratuitous violence just wasn't there.

If you want to read (or listen to) a genuinely gripping and moving account of life as a slave read Solomon Northup's 12 Years a Slave' which is a first hand, historical account of what happened.

If you really like the 'alternative universe' narrative, I suggest Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America'

If you enjoy magical realism, read 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

18 people found this helpful

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A spellbinding, heartbreaking tale of slavery.

I always know when I have read a truly great book - I am bereft at its end and want to tell everyone about it. This was such a book. One of my top five reads of 2017, so far.

Beautifully written, well-paced, great plot and characters. The lives and fate of slaves and runaways have always made for shocking reading and this novel is no exception . But the clever concept and depiction of the Underground Railroad gave this novel it's unique edge and kept me wondering if Cora, the main character, would ever reach the Free States.

Excellent and sympathetic narration.

11 people found this helpful

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cora captivated me.

Captivating story. I became so involved with Cora I could feel her next to me.
occasionally I felt the voice sounded a little robotic which was no fault of the narrator. perhaps the recording.
highly recommended nevertheless.

5 people found this helpful

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Powerful, epic, a real look into inhumanity

Listening to this is obviously a struggle, the content of slavery is not something that can be trivialised so be warned.

While Colson Whitehead did not get into much character building, the focus on the underground railroad itself is detailed and descriptive. The protagonist Cora serves as a good barometer in understanding the level of horror that many African Americans faced hence the writer does not seem to concentrate on creating emotive backgrounds for each character.

Nevertheless, the terrifying incidents leave the listener empathising with the characters as it reflects the lack of safety and constant fear they had to face. It is a rollercoaster listen, starting off slow but still horrifying, culminating in more and more terrible situations. The performer is a little stagnant at times probably because it reads more as a factual piece than autobiographical.

A 21st century tribute to the generations who have suffered.

5 people found this helpful

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Gritty and Bleak

great performance and a great story, but its not a light listen! the main character Cora is likeable and you really get drawn in to her story and want her to succeed. there are twists and turns in the story but the gritty realism keeps you grounded.

4 people found this helpful

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Great book, great writing.

Good book. Energetic, upsetting and beautifully written. It had its redemptive moments, but it's a grim subject all told.

Recommended.

3 people found this helpful

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Powerful storytelling

incredible acting and an amazing and heart wrenching story means this is a must. Especially poignant with the rampant bigotry and racism some factions of politics want to spread in the world.

2 people found this helpful

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Slavery laid bare, warts and all.

I really do not enjoy american narratorss, however Bahni Turpin is simply wonderful as she brings all the characters to life. She was amazing in Calling me home, which I would also recommend as it is in a similar vein, however a little less graphic.

There were some horrific moments in this book which made me gasp in shock, and made me ashamed to be white.
The completee injustice of slavery is laid bare warts and all in this tale of the chance of freedom and how much you would risk for it.

Highly recommended.

4 people found this helpful

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Good but problematic

Engaging and touching story - an exciting tale where you really feel invested in the characters and their peril. I found the fantasy element of a physical railroad made me doubt the veracity of other elements. With a subject this important and recent I think you either need to be factual or set an allegory in a fictional world. Narration is excellent and the violence was well handled - horrific but discreet and not gratuitous. I’m interested to read other views now - good book club choice!

1 person found this helpful

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Excellent & emotional story, brilliantly performed

The narrator was incredible, and the story/journey was fascinating. I have to admit quite a few times I got lost/confused and had to rewind to work out what was going on, maybe because I was really tired. Despite my occasional confusion I would say this story is well worth the effort and I would highly recommend it.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Craig
  • 04-03-19

Good reader, poor story

This book is disappointing; I'm baffled at all the media and prizes it received. The characters are two dimensional and inconsistent, the story line is disjointed, and the actual "underground railroad" urban-fantasy (or whatever you call it ) plays a very small role in the book.

If you want to read about slavery in America, I'm sure you will find better books.

PS: nothing wrong with the reader

2 people found this helpful

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  • Zeno
  • 17-06-21

The horrors are fact, the railroad is fiction

I had wanted to immerse myself in this story, to learn more about that horrific part of history. The writing is wonderful and immersion was instant and there I was, with Cora, looking in on a world of utter and complete and injustice. I told my wife about it as I was reading it, I told my children about it - and was amazed by the railroad - it sounded so fantastical that something like that had been accomplished in secret - but I was reading a historical novel, wasn't I? Well, I wasn't. It's called magical realism and when you KNOW about it beforehand, it's fantastic. But if you don't, and I didn't, then it is quite jarring.

Long story short, all the horrors in the novel did, one way or another, one place or another, happen. But the eponymous underground railroad is fiction, a device created by the author to get his protagonist to various places and thus allow us to experience a great deal more. It delivers a vast and nightmarish canvas and, beyond the great story, a great deal will be learned. I just wish I had known, beforehand, about the creative liberties (excellent as they are) Whitehead took.