BOTM May 2018: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

audiobooklover
Clan Fraser
Joined: July 19th, 2010, 10:09 pm

May 1st, 2018, 1:20 pm #1

How would you rate this book?

Total votes: 5
1(20%)
4(80%)
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May's Book of the Month is:

The Underground RailRoad by Colson Whitehead



#1 New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Winner of the National Book Award
Winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

One of the Best books of the Year: The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, HuffPost, Esquire, Minneapolis Star Tribune


Cora is a young 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.


Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (January 30, 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0345804325
ISBN-13: 978-0345804327


Discussion will begin on May 23.
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NigheanDubh
Clan Fraser
Joined: September 17th, 2009, 3:16 am

May 2nd, 2018, 12:16 am #2

I've been meaning to read this when it first came out, so I couldn't wait and went ahead.  Such an important book!  I'm so glad it is a botm selection.  Whoever brought this one up, well done!
"'I wish to God,' said Gideon with mild exasperation, 'that you'd talk--just once--in prose like other people.'"
--Game of Kings
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Pauline
Clan Fraser
Joined: October 1st, 2009, 11:19 pm

May 19th, 2018, 8:43 pm #3

I finished this book and am looking forward to the discussion.  This was a good one and not one that I would have picked up had it not been a BOTM.
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audiobooklover
Clan Fraser
Joined: July 19th, 2010, 10:09 pm

May 23rd, 2018, 2:48 pm #4

Discussion is now open.  Here are some discussion questions from here.

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.)

*Note: I copied the questions as they appeared on the litlovers site I linked, but shouldn't that be South Carolina, rather than North Carolina?  I listened to this book and can't easily go back to check, but I thought SC was where Cora saw doctors and the museum and NC was where she just hid in the attic and watched hangings through the window.
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NigheanDubh
Clan Fraser
Joined: September 17th, 2009, 3:16 am

May 23rd, 2018, 10:11 pm #5

This was a difficult but important read.  Audiobooklover, thank you for the questions.  I finished it a a few weeks ago so the details are a bit fuzzy.  

It is always sad and disturbing to read about the suffering of the innocent.  Like so many other books and documentaries I've experienced, each one depicts the tragedy, the horror in a different way.  This was so different because of the railroad itself.  

I found it surprising that the Underground Railroad was depicted as an actual working system of trains in the book.  One had to open a trap door and climb down into tunnels and wait for the train to appear, if it did appear.  That was rather fascinating.  Whitehead used the metaphor and made it real.  For this reason I thought it had a dreamlike quality.  There was a surreal element of this system of trains which was magical.  No one but the slaves knew about.  That had to be magic.  How could the owners not know? How could they not have heard its construction? How did some know of it and others not?  I thought of ghosts running the rails until Martin.  It had a polar express feel to it, at times so desolate, but unlike the Polar Express, there was only the dank, the dark, and no Father Christmas at the end of the line.  

The bravery, the courage of the slaves themselves and the people who risked their own safety and that of their families to preserve the lives of the runaways is always astounding.  As they say freedom is never free.  
"'I wish to God,' said Gideon with mild exasperation, 'that you'd talk--just once--in prose like other people.'"
--Game of Kings
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Pauline
Clan Fraser
Joined: October 1st, 2009, 11:19 pm

May 24th, 2018, 12:50 am #6

I actually thought that the railroad was real when I had always believed that the UR was just a network of abolitionists.  Just to confirm, I googled it and saw that it wasn't real, however the metaphor was real.  "Look out the window of the train and you will see America" the stationmaster tells Cora and when she does, she sees nothing but darkness.  For her life, that was a reality. I'm not sure why the author chose to portray it as real.  

After reading the Kitchen House and its sequel, many of the scenes were similar and you can't help but feel nausea at the violence and treatment of the slaves.  The author does interject some history in why some of the laws were changed in places like South Carolina but Cora's experience shows how those "protective" laws were turned around on them.  To never feel safe, secure or able to plan for your future was the life that Cora led and it is no wonder that when she reached any place of 'safety', she tried to hang onto it even when the signs showed that danger was imminent.  

ND, I like your comment about the Polar Express, because it really did have that feel to it as did the young black coach rider assisting the slave catcher (sorry I read this in at the beginning of the month and can't recall everyone's names).  
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DLT
Clan Fraser
DLT
Clan Fraser
Joined: May 26th, 2012, 7:06 am

May 26th, 2018, 11:27 pm #7

I only just started this book, so I am averting my eyes from the comments and will be back in a few weeks to post my views. I began it in book form and have now switched to audio which really brings out the characters.
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Lisa SF
Clan Fraser
Joined: August 2nd, 2011, 11:43 pm

May 27th, 2018, 12:35 am #8

Very powerful book -- what a great choice. The depiction of slavery and the brutality is horrific. I was a little confused about why the author chose to make the railroad real. It did give it a magical, surreal feel, and I wondered how it came about -- but I suppose the mystery of its existence is part of what makes it feel so magical. The behavior of the plantation owner was horrible to read about, but it was also chilling to learn the truth behind the society in South Carolina, which at first seemed relatively safe for the escaped slaves.
"There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books." - Irving Stone

Just another reader with a blog... check it out here.
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Lady Jayne
Clan Fraser
Joined: October 4th, 2009, 7:41 pm

May 27th, 2018, 5:03 am #9

The Underground Railroad was a compelling book. I wanted Cora to find some happiness, but her hopes were shattered every time. First, she is abandoned by her mother, or so it had seemed. Why hadn't anyone considered Mabel died during her escape? Then Cora flees with Caesar, only to be hunted again, and while she escapes, he is violently killed by an angry mob. Royal rescues her from Ridgeway, but then Royal meets a tragic end when half the congregation is slaughtered.

At first I hadn't realized the "underground railroads" were fictionalized, as was John Valentine's Farm. The tension and emotional instability was real, though. I kept thinking, Cora and Ceasar shouldn't get too settled once they had reached South Carolina. There was no safe haven for them, even though some people tried to help them. Those people, like Ethel and her husband were also punished. Now that there is no one left to track Cora, she may have a chance at freedom.

ABL, as you mentioned, it should be a South Carolina for number three of the discussion questions.
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audiobooklover
Clan Fraser
Joined: July 19th, 2010, 10:09 pm

May 30th, 2018, 9:10 pm #10

I just realized that I never posted any comments about this, even though I had meant to.  And, the extra week of time passage makes my memories even fuzzier.

I will say that this was a difficult book, but because of warnings from others who started before I did, I expected it to be unrelentingly grim, so I actually found it a little easier going than I thought it might be.  Mind you, every moment of hope - except the very end which did give Cora a chance at freedom - was destroyed by a new threat or attack.

I hadn't thought about it before reading the questions, but I think that the state by state structure of the book may have made readers feel almost like they are on a train - with each state as the next car - or are on a train trip from place to place while reading it.  Hmmm.  Rereading that I'm not sure it makes sense, but it occurred to me, so I'll leave it.  The different states also allowed there to be a series of different situations, some better, some worse, but even the good ones, like South Carolina, had their bad points for African Americans; it just took longer to discover them in some places.

I'm not quite sure I understand why the railroads were literal in this book.  I mean, I understand that it is a magical realism element and the theme of travel along tracks with specific places you could go is somewhat constrained as Cora's whole life was.  And, the dark tunnels could represent the darkness that may or may not lead to freedom.  But, I think the main ideas could be presented without literal railroads. It does allow Cora to escape on her own in the tunnel at the end rather than the factual Underground Railroad where she might have needed a guide or more instruction about where to go, but even that could have been worked around I think.  
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NigheanDubh
Clan Fraser
Joined: September 17th, 2009, 3:16 am

May 31st, 2018, 12:37 am #11

Audiobooklover wrote:  "I think that the state by state structure of the book may have made readers feel almost like they are on a train - with each state as the next car - or are on a train trip from place to place while reading it.  Hmmm.  Rereading that I'm not sure it makes sense, but it occurred to me, so I'll leave it.  The different states also allowed there to be a series of different situations, some better, some worse, but even the good ones, like South Carolina, had their bad points for African Americans; it just took longer to discover them in some places."
I really liked your thought, audio and I'm glad you left it.  It makes total sense to me.

I'm not quite sure I understand why the railroads were literal in this book.  I mean, I understand that it is a magical realism element and the theme of travel along tracks with specific places you could go is somewhat constrained as Cora's whole life was.  And, the dark tunnels could represent the darkness that may or may not lead to freedom.  But, I think the main ideas could be presented without literal railroads. It does allow Cora to escape on her own in the tunnel at the end rather than the factual Underground Railroad where she might have needed a guide or more instruction about where to go, but even that could have been worked around I think.  
Truth be told, I found the literal railroad misleading for people who had not ever read about it.  I live in a town in which Sojourner Truth is honored.  The State University's Library in my town is named after her.  Long ago I remember reading to and with my children about the Underground Railroad and what it represented, how it worked. So I knew that the railroad was metaphorical (but who hasn't actually thought of a railroad upon hearing it mentioned?)  In reading this book, though, I questioned my knowledge and went to the extent of googling to verify what I thought I knew.  Was something new discovered? But it was too fantastical to be real.  Still, I needed to refresh the facts.  This book led me to look again.  
I just hope people don't misconstrue the reality of what the railroad was.  Would that there would have been such a train network, only they would have been invisible trains where no one running would have been detected.  A magical train to save every one of those slaves.   As we see in this novel, even the fantastical train depended on the fortitude of the slaves running and those ready to help.  
"'I wish to God,' said Gideon with mild exasperation, 'that you'd talk--just once--in prose like other people.'"
--Game of Kings
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