The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.”

-Vera Nazarian

I have a reading list 40 books long for this summer, so I figured I’d be productive and add more content to my blog by doing ‘Book Club’ reviews for each of them (if I can keep up). Oprah picked this book for her Book Club in August of 2016, so I will be answering some questions directly from her website.

Here goes…book #1: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad

Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation, has a rough life as of course all slaves do. She is an outcast even among the other slaves on the plantation, and you gather from the beginning that she is different from her peers. Another slave, Caesar, approaches her one day with the idea of running North. Once on this journey, Cora is forced to do the unthinkable in order to survive and wrestles with her conscience throughout the rest of the book. Cora and Caesar are being hunted by slave catchers and find themselves in impossible situations that seemingly have no way out.

Hopefully I’ve captured enough of your attention with that brief synopsis that you want to see what I thought of the book before deciding whether to read it yourself. My thoughts await…

1. The scenes on Randall’s plantation are horrific—how did the writing affect you as a reader?

Most of the scenes were pretty easy for me to handle, as I’ve watched multiple films and read multiple books about slavery in the past so I had a general understanding of what to expect. There is one particular scene, however, about the punishment of a slave who was caught running that I thought absolutely revolting. I was so amazed by it that I immediately called my dad and told him about it, then said, “I can’t believe my people actually treated others like this!!!” I was so heartbroken.

2. “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?

For people who have been in shackles their whole lives, money doesn’t mean much to them. As slaves, they’d save the money they do make to buy their freedom. This leads readers to understand that the ultimate goal wasn’t to make money, but to be released from their shackles. I think that applies to everyone, not only slaves. Everyone is shackled by something, whether that be their job, family, addiction, conscience, toxic relationship, etc. People look to break free from the things that are holding them back, and the slaves in this book are no different. They want to be able to do with their lives what they wish and not be at the command of another.

3. 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 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?

In the novel, it directly means that even if all the slaves were set free, they wouldn’t enjoy their lives because they remember being chained and owned by another race. And the current generation of slave owners would never forget the conditions they were raised in, where they felt entitled to own other people as property. It would take clear minds in a new generation to truly start over. This is something we’re dealing with today, too, as racism still exists (although not as intensely as the time depicted in this book) and with every generation, hopefully the memories of it will continue to dissipate until it ceases to exist completely.

4. What do you think about Terrance Randall’s fate?

Serves him right. This man repeatedly beat and sexually abused his slaves, and he was the person behind the gruesome punishment I was referring to in the first question. It’s ironic that he died of heart failure when he had no heart to begin with.

5. 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?

Throughout the whole novel, Cora believes that her mother left her without saying goodbye and resided in Canada, where it was safe for her. Since I can only have knowledge of what the author decides to tell me through Cora, I thought that was a selfish act on her mother’s part-as was Cora’s opinion as well. Toward the end, we learn that Mabel (Cora’s mom) was on her way back to Cora when she was bitten by a snake and dies. After learning this, although I still think it was selfish of her to leave without her daughter in the first place, I saw her as courageous. She heard all the horror stories of the slaves who were caught running, especially on her own plantation, and knew what her fate would most likely be returning directly to the place she escaped from. However, she wanted to be with her daughter and was willing to risk her life for it.

6. Who do you connect with most in the novel and why?

I believe I connect with Martin Wells on a certain level. He is a member of The Underground Railroad and takes Cora in even after the railroad has been closed. He harbors her in his attic and puts his life on the line to keep Cora safe. I like to think that if I were in his shoes, I would’ve done the same thing. I like to think I would’ve been an abolitionist.

7. 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?

To no fault of Colson Whitehead, I already had a pretty good understanding of what slavery was like from other pieces of literature I’ve read and films I’ve watched in History class. However, it did open my eyes a little bit more because of how vivid some scenes were. I can’t think of a worse situation for a human being to be in.

8. 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?

This was a smart choice on Whitehead’s part. I think using this piece of exaggerated fiction reaches a bigger audience, because I never actually understood how this process worked when I was learning about it in school. Like, “Yeah, okay. There was an underground railroad…whatever the heck that means.” The way he explained it here just clicked with me; a lightbulb went on in my head. I gained a greater understanding of how it actually worked.

9. Does The Underground Railroad change the way you look at the history of America, especially in the time of slavery and abolitionism?

If America isn’t perfect now (and it’s not), it definitely wasn’t perfect during this time. I am more appalled at the fact that a certain race of human beings treated other human beings in such a disgraceful way. I am not proud of this part in our history whatsoever, but I am proud of those individuals who took action against it.

Colson Whitehead does a great job of portraying real issues in America today, racism and women’s rights being two of the most prominent. It’s an eye-opening read and leaves you questioning things about yourself and about mankind in general. FYI: if you like to expand your vocabulary, this is the book for you. I’m not exaggerating at all when I tell you that I was stopping and looking up the definitions of words literally every other paragraph of this entire book. It’s saturated with vocab words. Have a pen and index cards ready to make flash cards with! It does slow you down a bit, but it enhances your knowledge immensely.

If you want to discuss or have questions for me, please comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it as well, or your thoughts on my review of it. I’m always open to suggestions, whether that be constructive criticism or a recommendation for another book!


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