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The Underground Railroad (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel Hardcover – August 2, 2016
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WINNER OF THE 2016 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTELLER
ONE OF NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW'S TEN BEST BOOKS OF 2016
“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)
“[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
“Think Toni Morrison (Beloved), Alex Haley (Roots); think 12 Years a Slave…An 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
About the Author
Colson Whitehead is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad, winner of the 2016 National Book Award, and named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, as well as The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and The Colossus of New York. He is also a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of the MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. He lives in New York City.
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Top Customer Reviews
Bearing children, only to see them torn from you to satisfy your master's debts. I am sure that these atrocities were part of my education, but this novel brings them more to the forefront than any textbook ever did. Even my college textbooks were circumspect in their description of man's inhumanity to man. For example, I did not know that all abolitionists were not involver in the underground railroad for purely altruistic reasons. Some actually used the newly "freed" slaved for medical research, delivering them from one sort of subhuman bondage to another. This book is a real Eye-opener for anyone educated in the public school system . Our textbooks did NOT tell the whole story. This novel gives a glimpse into the hardships and injustices we really never grasped in our American History class. An easy, if unsettling, read for this white girl!
Even with all the hype and Oprah's seal of approval I wasn't a fan of this book. There was a lot of good description of the era, some emotional scenes of abuse which are vividly detailed and many diverse characters but it lacked a complexity to the plot and an emotional connection to the characters. Cora, and especially Caesar, felt underdeveloped with their inner feelings muffled to the reader. I also found the flow of the plot to be choppy as readers are repeatedly taken from the main plot into subplots and there were vast sections, mainly towards the end, where the plot would lag and my interest faltered.
But my biggest beef has to be the author's fictionalized idea of the Underground Railroad. He described it as an actual subterranean railroad which brought slaves to freedom. I realize that his concept of the real Underground Railroad was stated on the cover and that it's a historical FICTION read. But this subway of sorts is too far fetched and I feel that the author took too many liberties moving the book into the historical fantasy genre. My first issue is that it confuses people who already know about the Underground Railroad (I had to reread several sections when it was first introduced because I thought I had misunderstood his intent). There was no actual railroad with tracks, engines and conductors. Instead it was a vast, intricate network of people who risked their own lives to hide and help slaves escape to the north, many of which came here to Canada. I've recently seen people posting pictures online of underground rail tracks in relation to this book. Now I'm concerned that people who didn't know much about the actual Underground Railroad will now mistakenly think there was a train to carry people who were fleeing torture and death at the hands of the people who claimed that they owned them. I don't think that addition to this story does the real underground railroad justice.
There were a few things that I did enjoy about this book. It details a different side to the era for me, specifically how former slaves were treated in the northern states and some of the racism that was still running rampant. It was sad how the white population viewed and treated former slaves and their fear that this growing group would gain in power resulting in some white people proposing sterilization of the black populace. This was all new information to me.
For someone like me who has read a lot about this era I felt this book was lacking in a few areas. I tried not to compare it to books like Roots by Alex Haley (my favourite book), The Kitchen House and Glory Over Everything by Kathleen Grissom and The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (all stellar books) but, honestly, how can you not?
I feel like I'm supposed to wax poetic about this book and shout my love for it from the rooftops. Everyone and their brother adores it but it just didn't do it for me. While it had great intentions this book didn't live up to the hype nor the vivid and engrossing books about slavery and the underground railroad that have come before it.
So, yeah, that might be enough. But luckily for us all, Whitehead has more on his mind than just that one conceit. Instead, Whitehead turns this flight for freedom into a modern day Odyssey, letting each stop along the way become an entirely different narrative in the life of slavery, America’s race relations, prejudice, and fear. And the result is a sprawling, strange, haunting novel, one whose separate episodes combine to make something far more fascinating and complex than any one story might have been able to do on its own.
For instance, a more traditional slave escape narrative could never contain the subtly wrong paradise that feels at first like heaven on Earth, only to have Whitehead slowly turn that world on its head. You wouldn’t have the nightmarishly violent community that has purged itself of African-Americans in the most horrific way possible; nor would you have the beauty of acts of kindness that come when least expected. In Whitehead’s capable hands, the journey becomes a more complex one, echoing back and forth through time as he takes on racism not just as an explicit force of slavery, but as a much more insidious, subtle evil that can hide behind people’s smiles. In other words, it’s not just the slave catchers we need to fear; it’s those for whom help means condescension and manipulation.
Make no mistake, though; this is undeniably a book about slavery, and one that deals with the horrors of the institution without blinking or flinching. Violence is casual and brutal, with torture being commonplace and almost barely worthy of mention. And while our heroine’s plantation is known for its cruelty, that doesn’t mean that it’s any more cruel than half of what she sees in her journeys. Whitehead doesn’t allow us the luxury of “this place is the worst”; it’s just a particularly bad one, but nothing special. And even if it were somehow worse, it barely compares to some of the psychological and emotional horrors to come, and the wanton cruelty and disregard that we see on display throughout the book.
And yet, for all of that, The Underground Railroad is still a slave escape narrative, one in which we’re invested in our heroine’s success, and one that keeps us reading in the face of all of the potential horrors, hoping for something good. Whitehead never lets The Underground Railroad become crushing or so bleak as to be unpalatable; he tempers it, mixing the good and the bad, and investing us in the characters so that we need them to succeed – and feel it all the more when some of them don’t.
In other words, The Underground Railroad is something remarkable – a look at history that finds its truth through fiction, a dose of magical realism that serves to emphasize hard facts, a novel that explores ideas that many of us wish we had left in history. That it does all this is no small feat; that it does so in such a complex, powerful way without ever becoming didactic or simplistic, even less of one. But the fact that it manages to do all of that while still telling a gripping, exciting story? That‘s what makes it such an incredible novel, and worthy of its reputation.