The Underground Railroad
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Summer 2018 Reading Group Indie Next List
— James Wilson, Octavia Books, New Orleans, LA
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Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood—where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him.
In Colson Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop.
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era, he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is both the gripping tale of one woman's will to escape the horrors of bondage—and a powerful meditation on the history we all share.
Look for Colson Whitehead’s new novel, Harlem Shuffle, coming this September!
Praise For The Underground Railroad: A Novel…
“An American masterpiece.” —NPR
“Stunningly daring.” —The New York Times Book Review
"A triumph." —The Washington Post
“Potent. . . . Devastating. . . . Essential.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Whitehead's best work and an important American novel.” —The Boston Globe
“Electrifying. . . . Tense, graphic, uplifting and informed, this is a story to share and remember.” —People
“Heart-stopping.” —Oprah Winfrey
“The Underground Railroad is inquiring into the very soul of American democracy. . . . A stirring exploration of the American experiment.” —The Wall Street Journal
“A brilliant reimagining of antebellum America.”—The New Republic
“Colson Whitehead’s book blends the fanciful and the horrific, the deeply emotional and the coolly intellectual. Whathe comes up with is an American masterpiece.”—Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto
“The Underground Railroad enters the pantheon of . . . the Great American Novels. . . . A wonderful reminder of whatgreat literature is supposed to do: open our eyes, challengeus, and leave us changed by the end.” —Esquire
“[Whitehead] is the best living American novelist.”—Chicago Tribune
“Masterful, urgent. . . . One of the finest novels written aboutour country’s still unabsolved original sin.” —USA Today
“Brilliant. . . . An instant classic that makes vivid the darkest, most horrific corners of America’s history of brutality against black people.” —HuffPost
“Singular, utterly riveting. . . . You’ll be shaken and stunned by Whitehead’s imaginative brilliance. . . . The Underground Railroad is a book both timeless and timely. It is a book for now; it is a book that is necessary.” —BuzzFeed
“Whitehead is a writer of extraordinary stylistic powers. . . . [The Underground Railroad] offers many testaments to Whitehead’s considerable talents and examines a deeply relevant and disturbing period of American history.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“[An] ingenious novel. . . . A successful amalgam: a realistically imagined slave narrative and a crafty allegory; a tense adventure tale and a meditation on America’s defining values.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Whitehead’s novel unflinchingly turns our attention to the foundations of the America we know now.” —Elle
“Perfectly balances the realism of its subject with fabulist touches that render it freshly illuminating.” —Time
“I haven’t been as simultaneously moved and entertained bya book for many years. This is a luminous, furious, wildly inventive tale that not only shines a bright light on one of the darkest periods of history, but also opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.”—Alex Preston, The Guardian
Anchor, 9780345804327, 336pp.
Publication Date: January 30, 2018
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
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?