Underground Railroad (Whitehead)

The Underground Railroad 
Colson Whitehead, 2016
Knopf Doubleday
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385542364

Winner, 2017 Pulitzer Prize-Fiction
Winner, 2016 National Book Awards

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 womanhood—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 planned—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 Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven.

But the city’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 Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates 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 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.(From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—November 6, 1969
Where—New York City, New York (USA)
Education—B.A., Harvard University
Awards—PEN/Oakland Award; Whiting Writers Award
Currently—ives in Brooklyn, New York City, New York

Colson Whitehead is a New York-based novelist and nonfiction works. He was born and raised in New York City, attending attending Trinity, a private prep school, in Manhattan. He graduated from Harvard College in 1991.

After leaving college, Whitehead wrote for The Village Voice and while there began working on his novels. His first, The Institutionalist, published in 1999, 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.

Next came John Henry Days in 2001. The novel is 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 followed in 2003. A book of essays about the city, it is a meditation on life in Manhattan in the style of E.B. White's well-known essay "Here Is New York." Colossus became a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Apex Hides the Hurt, released in 2006, centers around a fictional "nomenclature consultant" who gets an assignment to name a town. The book earned Whitehead the PEN/Oakland Award.

Sag Harbor, set in 1985, follows a group of teenagers whose families (like Whitehead's own) spend the summer in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Published in 2009, the novel was a finalist for both the PEN/Faulkner award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In 2010 came Zone One, a post-apocalyptic story set New York City.

In 2014 Whitehead published his second work of nonfiction, this one about the 2011 World Series of Poker—The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death. Two years later, in 2016, his novel The Underground Railroad, was released. Widely acclaimed, many critics agree that it is destined to become an American masterpiece.

In addition to his books, Whitehead's reviews, essays, and fiction have appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper's and Granta, and others.

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

In the spring of 2015, he joined The New York Times Magazine to write a column on language.

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. (Adapted from the author's website and Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/6/2016.)

Book Reviews
[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 Miserables, 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 - New York Times

[T]ouches on the historical novel and the slave story, but what it does with those genres is striking and imaginative…carefully built and stunningly daring; it is also, both in expected and unexpected ways, dense, substantial and important…. [Whitehead] opens his eyes where the rest of us would rather look away. In this, The Underground Railroad is courageous but never gratuitous.... The Underground Railroad becomes something much more interesting than a historical novel. It doesn't merely tell us about what happened; it also tells us what might have happened. Whitehead's imagination, unconstrained by stubborn facts, takes the novel to new places in the narrative of slavery, or rather to places where it actually has something new to say. If the role of the novel, as Milan Kundera argues in a beautiful essay, is to say what only the novel can say, The Underground Railroad achieves the task by small shifts in perspective: It moves a couple of feet to one side, and suddenly there are strange skyscrapers on the ground of the American South and a railroad running under it, and the novel is taking us somewhere we have never been before.…The Underground Railroad is Whitehead's…attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.
Juan Gabriel Vasquez - New York Times Book Review

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

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

[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 (Book of the Week).

(Starred review.) "Each thing had a value... In America the quirk was that people were things." So observes Ajarry, taken from Africa as a girl in the mid-18th century to be sold and resold and sold again.... The story is literature at its finest and history at its most barbaric. Would that this novel were required reading for every American citizen.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Whitehead...puts escaped slaves Cora and Caesar on what is literally an underground railroad, using such brief magical realist touches to enhance our understanding of the African American experience.... [He] continues ratcheting up both imagery and tension.... [A] work that raises the bar for fiction addressing slavery. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller's deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass' grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft's rococo fantasies…and that's when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.... [Whitehead] is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.
Kirkus Reviews

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?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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