The Underground Railroad was written by Colson Whitehead, author of five other award-winning novels as well as essays and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.
In this #1 New York Times bestseller by Colson Whitehead, 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 Pulitzer Prize-winning 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.
[From Amazon books]
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1. How is your understanding of slavery in America different now than it was before reading the book? Did it prompt you to do any more research or find out any other stories about people who escaped?
2. Days before Cora decides to leave, a man is brutally tortured for an escape attempt. How does this affect you as a reader?
3. Many of the scenes on the Randall plantation are graphic. Why do you think Whitehead chose to include these scenes?
4. In The Underground Railroad, the narration switches perspectives. Did seeing some scenes from Cora’s point of view and some scenes from Ridgeway’s point of view change your opinion about any of the characters? Why do you think the author chose to do this?
5. What role do you think stories play in Cora’s survival? What about other travelers on the underground railroad?
6. Why do you think the author chose to use the magical realism of a literal underground railroad?
7. Does Ethel telling her story change your perception of her? Why or why not?
8. Why do you think Ridgeway bought Cora a dress and took her out to dinner while she was still in chains?
9. Did you find anything surprising in The Underground Railroad? Were there any turn of events you didn’t expect?
10. How do you feel about Mabel’s decision to run away? Does your opinion of her change after you learn of what really happened to Cora’s mother?
11. Do you see any present day events reflected in the novel? How does this make you feel?
12. “Each thing had a value … In America the quirk was that people were things.” How does the idea of people as property play out in ways you didn’t expect throughout the book? Does that change your view of slavery in America?
13. The author creates emotional instability for the reader by lulling them into a false sense of security. How does this sense of fear affect the reading?
[From Book riot]
The Underground Railroad is a powerful read. It also could be considered uncomfortable because it does away with any of the idealism surrounding those in the South who held slaves and willfully treated them viciously. The reader is sorely tested by the vivid descriptions of the “mythical” physical characteristics of the Underground Railroad. While reading this book you know that such a physical railroad did not exist. This was challenged by the author’s repeated and compelling descriptions of a station with the locomotive and cars and tracks as they must have existed metaphorically in the minds of those affected. Added to this were descriptions of the digging of the tunnel ever heading north.
The brutality was portrayed without pulling any punches. The feelings of Cora and her mother about a tiny plot of land they could call their own is hard to ignore. The story is told in a bit of a dream state floating unrealistically from one experience to the other without the necessity of structural integrity. These events were portrayed as examples as the author skillfully wove lives that could have been and did so in realistic if tragic ways.
The protagonist was forthright and persistent while always holding something back. In the end she regretted this behavior. The weakness and ambivalence of the slave hunters hinted at the character and capabilities of these men.
The events in Indiana at the welcoming community were undoubtedly a bit of dreamland but the ending with its cruelty was back to the reality to be dealt with. The author did leave a nice feeling for the reader in the way he dealt with Mabel who did not desert her daughter.
A question for the reader, did this change your feeling about slavery. The answer for me would be no for most, but some for others. The yes is that it cast even clearer light on the brutality that was thrust on the victims of this heinous practice. The reading is not light, but its lesson cannot be ignored.
By Gene Helveston
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