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The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize Winner) (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel Hardcover – August 2, 2016
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“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
- Item Weight : 1.4 pounds
- Lexile measure : 890L
- Hardcover : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0385542364
- ISBN-13 : 978-0385542364
- Dimensions : 6.44 x 1.18 x 9.54 inches
- Publisher : Doubleday; 1st Edition (August 2, 2016)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #23,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Incomplete sentences abound. Paragraphs introduced by pronouns." "The sounds that came from his body made the labor fly." WHAT? Sounds made labor "fly?" I have several pages of examples of Whitehead's poor writing. "Cora looked at him. Burr-headed and red-eyed." Who was burr-headed and red-eyed? (I know, and so do you, but it is not clear, clean writing.) "In those days he patrolled with a black umbrella but eventually surrendered and now his white blouses were stark against his tanned flesh." (Surrendered his umbrella? Which had obscured his white blouses?) I am astonished that this won the Pulitzer. It's an insult to writers who strive to craft a well-written piece of work. Two thumbs and all fingers down on this one.
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.
Top reviews from other countries
Whilst the novel does have literary pretensions, the story ultimately becomes an edge-of-the seat page turning thriller. I can understand why some reviewers found the initial chapters difficult but the book evolves into something that is hugely descriptive and with a sense of danger and menace which permeates the novel like nothing else I have ever read. Whilst the whole concept of an actual underground railway is an elaborate twist on the name given to a network dedicated to rescuing escaped slaves, there is a lot of historical research which has gone in to this book as well as references to later incidents such as the notorious Tuskegee Experiment.
The book is often uncomfortable and there is an underlying and understandable resentment of the racist nature of America and the battles it's black population had to overcome to assert themselves. This is a novel that does not withhold it's punches yet offers up a mirror to American society today. I would have to say that the novel is like a tapestry where the various elements eventually coalesce and you are taken on a journey which is often fascinating, repellent and rewarding depending upon which chapter you are reading. The villains in the piece are repugnant and menacing. Ridgeway is one of the most believable villains I have encountered in a book. Not all the white characters are bad and it is nice to see that things are so nuanced. The detestable Homer is scary because his motives are never really explained. Not sure why a macabre black boy should work for a slave catcher.
I am usually quite negative about American literature. In the past I have been disappointed by writers such as Scot F Fitzgerald who are deemed to represent the "American experience." As a rule, I avoid American writers due to these feelings. Having said this, I would have to say that this book represents exactly how I feel about America. The white characters are especially well drawn in this novel and this appertains to both the liberal characters and racists described within this book. Even those who appear to have good intentions transpire to be misguided.
At the end of the day, what sells this book for me is the fact that you want to talk about it and tell everyone how good it is after you have finished it. It really sticks in your mind, If it has a flaw, it is that there is a sense of foreboding throughout the book which makes you rush through the pages. This means that you sometimes miss the beauty in the language. Deemed a "science fiction " novel, this is somewhat of a miscasting as I feel this is a book that everyone needs to read. This would make a terrific film but I would urge anyone who loves books to pick this novel up and give it a try before it hits the big screen. Thoroughly recommended.
The narrative of Cora's escape across five states becomes a sombre and nuanced exploration of the toxic effect of slavery, especially plantation slavery, on the whole of American society, with figures like Martin and Homer serving to illustrate the diversity of human responses to the enveloping nightmare.
I had a mixed reaction to the magic realism of the railroad and to a lesser extent the South Carolina sequence. It was daring on Whitehead's part, because he ran the risk of destroying his book's credibility. I can understand why some readers abandoned the novel at that point. But on balance I thought it worked, adding an invigorating extra dimension.
The only flaw was the rather muted ending, which lacked the self confidence and panache of the rest of the novel.
The writing is lyrical and poetic and crafted with care and a real sense of artistry. The story is utterly compelling and takes a real grip early on and never lets it's tightness ease. The characters are crafted with care and loving attention and their stories draw massive emotional responses. It's hard to fathom the evil and totality of the Slavery Experience, it's savagery and ruthlessness and the way it pock marked itself so deeply into the culture of The South-and beyond. It's impact reasonates today causing a torrent of complex problems & challenges for modern day America.
This is a bleak read but it also inspires as the central characters try to retain their dignity and Hope in a period of unrelenting primeval savagery.
The pace of the book is fierce and you root for the Slaves. There are one or two moments of exhilaration amidst the despair and murderous culture.
Parts of the book ride a rocky road in trying to stretch the debate between the protagonists and for me the weakest section is in the interchange between the Slave Catcher ,Ridgeway, and Cara. That part just doesn't work.
But it's a rare moment in an otherwise superlative read. This is a simply magnificent book which is beautifully written, imaginatively constructed and powerfully realised.
Highly recommended and one of my Books of the Decade.
Slavery was and is totally awful and it is a story of cruelty for economic gain and the result of seeing people as less than human - this being the basis of appalling racism. There were a few episodes that capture the horror and brutality of it and I fearful of being seen as someone who trivialises it but in a strange way the book does that.
Cora just like Dick Barton was save at the last moment when somehow a saviour or saviours turned up. This made it certain that she would ride off into the sunset. Those who died brutal deaths and who remain as a scar on the people who used slavery so casually got lost in this book.