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Tv/streaming, great movies, chaz's journal, contributors, black writers week, it's physical work: barry jenkins on the underground railroad.

ny times book review underground railroad

When “ The Underground Railroad ” premiered on Amazon Prime Video during the pandemic, some were worried. At a moment when Black bodies were occupying grisly breaking news and haunting police chest cameras, many wondered if it was the right time for a ten-episode limited series set during chattel slavery to grace the screen. Fears persisted about the series conjuring fits of trauma and retreading old ground. It was a knee-jerk reaction that was at once understandable and yet surprising. Surely, Barry Jenkins , who’d be adapting the series from Colson Whitehead ’s same-titled Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, had earned the benefit of the doubt by releasing gorgeously wrought, humanist windows into Black life like “ Medicine for Melancholy ,” “ Moonlight ,” and “ If Beale Street Could Talk ."     

Told elegantly, with unfettered truthfulness, “The Underground Railroad” takes great care to tell the story of Cora ( Thuso Mbedu )—an enslaved woman seemingly abandoned long ago by her mother, Mabel ( Sheila Atim ), who decides to flee with her lover Caesar ( Aaron Pierre ) away from their plantation toward freedom. They are pursued by a brutal slave catcher, Ridgeway ( Joel Edgerton ), and his Black adolescent assistant, Homer ( Chase W. Dillon ). Cora’s journey takes her westward through the south, where she encounters death and heartache, and fleeting instances of love and joy on lush and barren landscapes that can sometimes briefly obscure a nightmarish surreality while igniting a metaphysical awakening. All the while, composer Nicholas Britell ’s achingly transportive score and DP James Laxton ’s splendid photography give life to not just Cora’s story in conjunction with the series’ deep ensemble but also the thrilling magical reality of the underground railroad quite literally being a subterranean train. 

Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” requires faith not unlike that which beckons one to plant okra in the ground for the next generation. “The Gaze,” the art piece he released on Vimeo the day of the series premiere, is another act of faith. It is a wordless prayer composed of Black folks’ resolute portraits, of open palms facing toward the sky, of the essence of Black light pouring forth from unbowed souls. The two in conversation do not merely prove the benefit of the doubt. They annihilate any reason to question how Jenkins and his tight-knit band of artist collaborators could deliver on the enormity of their task: To give voice to ancestors. 

Now, “The Underground Railroad” is being added to the Criterion Collection through an immaculately composed release that’ll include all ten episodes and “The Gaze,” commentary tracks, deleted scenes, teasers, a short program about the building of the underground railroad, a graphic novel adaptation of an unfilmed chapter of "The Underground Railroad,” and an essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién. 

Barry Jenkins spoke to RogerEbert.com over Zoom about the creation of “The Gaze,” the tension of filming beauty and horror at once, and how “The Underground Railroad” fits within his career.      

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ny times book review underground railroad

In your introduction to this release’s commentary track, you said that you’d like audiences to view each episode’s commentary track in the order you shot them, which of course is non-linear in relation to the narrative of the series. What was the thought process behind that?

You’ve seen the show, but if you haven't seen the show, you should watch it [episode] one through ten [ Laughs ]. But whenever we release physical media, I always think of the way I first encountered physical media, which was primarily in film school and watching the things that other directors I admired had done and trying to understand, if not exactly how they did it or why they did it, what they were going through as they were creating it. And so with this show, particularly because there's so much of it— there's so much filmmaking —I just felt, putting myself in my film school shoes, it would be really interesting to go on the journey of: Oh, we were doing this, and it aesthetically felt this way. And then when we learned this thing, we started to shift and do things that way. 

The other thing, too, is that it's a narrative. As opposed to just watching the episodes with the commentary in isolation to try to understand or figure out that camera move or this performance trick, you could really go on a journey. There's the one journey within the show with the characters, then it's the journey with us as the filmmakers. That was the thing about the release that I found most interesting. Because the show came out during the pandemic, we didn't really get to go out with it the way we normally do with our work and actually engage with the audience and speak to people—this was an opportunity to do that.

The last time we talked about “The Underground Railroad,” we didn’t speak about “The Gaze,” mostly because it was so fresh and new. I watched it after I finished watching the series. My partner, however, watched it first, before she started “The Underground Railroad.” 

She then returned to it when she finished, which was fascinating. Is there a specific moment in relation to the series at which you think audiences should watch “The Gaze”?

I don't know. It never occurred to me because “The Gaze” wasn't this intentional thing. It just kind of happened as we were making the show. I felt like people should watch it before they watch the show because I released it before the show was released. But it's not necessary to do so. 

We recently screened the entire show of “The Underground Railroad” in Berkeley at the Pacific Film Archive in the theater over three days and three nights, which was an awesome experience. We scheduled “‘The Gaze” the morning of the last three episodes. So we showed it after “Fanny Briggs,” but before the two “Indiana” episodes and “Mabel,” which was a very fascinating place, I think, for the audience to encounter that piece. Especially because there are certain puzzle pieces at the end of “The Gaze” that are clues to some things that happen at the end of “Indiana Winter.” 

And yet, I don't know. I think your partner's experience is very interesting—watching it before and then after as well—because maybe those images take on a different code when you've gone through the experience of watching the show.

Yeah. I mean, by watching it at the end, I could easily piece certain shots together because I already have a built-in connection with these people. And even many of the characters I don't recognize, say in the background, made me want to rewatch and retrace the entire series. But I find beginning with it out of any context so fascinating because you’re not approaching these characters as characters within a series. You’re seeing them wholly as human.

There's something freeing about having a story or narrative structure to go through an experience with the character, but there's also something restrictive in it. And so with “The Gaze,” in putting it together, it was good to be completely divorced from the show's narrative. When we were filming those portraits, I didn't give any direction to the actors. My one direction, which, thinking of it now, maybe was a bit glib, was: Show me yourself .  

And yet, I was surprised at how consistent the expressions were. Maybe it was the period dress. Maybe it was the feeling of being in the making of the show. Because everyone in that piece is making the show. There was something about it that surprised me. Again, the footage was sitting there for about six months, and then I finally woke up one morning and was like: Oh, we should do something with this ? That was maybe two weeks before the show dropped. [ Laughs ] So it happened at the very last minute.

From my understanding, “The Gaze” began as five hours of footage before one of the series’ editors fashioned an initial one-hour cut. After that, it went through several more edits, switching footage here and there. As you were editing, did you have an unspoken narrative throughline in mind?

Yeah, I said we were going to go in the show’s chronology. Because there was just so much footage, it helped Daniel Morfesis , who cut it together, have a very simple, logical, organizing principle. The biggest thing that happened from the first version of it to the version that I put on Vimeo was: Okay, when does this become narrative? Or when does something in this become like a clue to narrative in the show? So there were some wonderful portraits in the show that aren't in “The Gaze,” even though I was like: Ah, this would fit perfectly, right here . I think the only one we kept was the group shot in the cotton field. That's in both just because that just spoke to everything.

ny times book review underground railroad

Throughout the series, there is tension between the beauty we’re seeing, the gorgeous photography of these landscapes, and the horrid actions that occurred on them. I think “The Gaze” is the most extreme, particularly because its silence leaves space to both marvel and imagine the sorrow. How did you balance that tension throughout the series? 

It wasn't even about trying to balance it. We made the show so fast, 500 pages in 116 days—that's about 12 days per hour-long episode. Because of that, we weren’t putting up massive lights and we weren’t waiting for light to shoot at these perfect moments. It's just in the environment that we're in. Anywhere you look, something equally barbaric and beautiful is occurring in the frame. I felt very steadfastly it would've been false to try to create an image that wasn't typically beautiful. Because beauty is different depending on a person's perspective, we would have had to get into the DI and purposely desaturate the image and chop all the highlights. That would've been a falsehood in and of itself.

It was something of a journey always to be mindful of because there is a place where, because of the gravity or the graveness of some of the images we were conjuring, it could almost seem in poor taste to record those things with this imagery that is so “beautiful.” And the truth of it was, it was just always there. It was shocking. 

The clearest example is the death of Big Anthony, where a kind of celestial light shines through his body. 

And that's just the sun. It is just the sun. And that's an actual house that has been there for centuries. We were out in the yard where that thing would've taken place, and the camera's just there, moving around, and then it looked over and boom, there it was. Now the choice would've been: Okay, well let's wait until that's not there. Or let's not film from this angle . But then what is that doing? This is natural; this is mother nature in the state of Georgia. In this place where I know things like this occurred, the point was, despite all this abject beauty, despite just this splendid landscape, despite the presence of God and the beauty of all this natural environment, these horrific things were still perpetrated on other godly beings—which is absolutely insane. To me, it spoke to the insanity of the enterprise, the madness, the barbarity.

I noticed there are two deleted scenes connected to the “North Carolina” episode, which feature the character Grace/Fanny Briggs (Mychal-Bella Bowman). The character is actually from Colson Whitehead’s previous novel “The Intuitionist!” What inspired you to include her in the series? 

There's just so much about mothering in the book, and, in particular in Cora's story, her having this deep psychic wound of being abandoned by her mother. I thought it would be a really wonderful opportunity for her to go on this journey and through a very real practical life lesson, maybe get closer to the difficulty of the limited choices of her mother. And so the embodiment of this character, Fanny Briggs, who occupies the crawlspace with Cora, it seemed like a really wonderful opportunity to give her this very real, lived example that can maybe bring her closer to understanding a thing that she really has no way to understand. Because Cora didn't get to speak to her mother about it. And then, with the episode of “Fanny Briggs,” I didn't want to create this character and then just break the audience's heart by having her befall the fate that at that point in the narrative, you expect characters that Cora comes in contact with to suffer. It was a thing that we built in the writer's room. 

The deleted scenes from those episodes, “North Carolina” and “Fanny Briggs,” are some of the ones I'm really happy are on the disc because they do complete a certain aspect of that narrative in “North Carolina.”

ny times book review underground railroad

To go more into the deleted scenes: There is a kind of infomercial advertising the Griffith Institute in the “South Carolina” episode. It feels so tonally different from much of the series; it almost feels like it could be in the “Atlanta” episode “B.A.N.” What was the initial thought process for that scene?

I'm always trying to imagine what it's gonna be like for the audience to experience the show. And the first episode is heavy. It's just really, really heavy. Maybe there needed to be a tonal reset at the top of the second episode, and that's where the infomercial idea came from. The interesting thing is that we use portraits that end up in “The Gaze” in the infomercial. So, it's fascinating how images can be coded in different ways. At the end of the day, it just felt like, tonally, the shift was too jarring. 

But I love that process when you get into the edit. That episode could have gone out with the infomercial at the top. What would that do to an audience member? How would that affect the very personal journey you're going on with Cora? Because that would’ve been a very impersonal opening if I'm being honest. So we didn't use it. But now you've got to see it and chuckle a little bit [ Laughs ] at the idea of what it would've been.

I was trying to imagine where you would have even put it. And, of course, the top of the episode makes sense. 

It would've been a cold open, just a cold open. That's what I mean: a complete reset from the ending of the first episode. Again, I try to ask what is the experience gonna be? Bombs Over Baghdad starts playing. After 15 seconds, the ticker goes 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 , and then boom, you're in this infomercial. But it was a cheat. So we didn't do it.

It almost feels a bit too cute, a bit too obvious.

There are also two deleted scenes with Homer, where he meets two Black men who own a dry cleaning business. 

It's fascinating because the original patent for a dry scouring machine was by a Black man.

And so it was like, it's history folks [ Laughs ].

But it’s also fascinating because these are the only two kind interactions he has with Black folks in the entire series.

Robert, this is what it is to make a thing. We're talking about these two scenes with Homer. We've talked about the infomercial opening. Again, these are kind, gentle things, funny things. One of my favorite deleted scenes on the whole disc is in “North Carolina.” After Martin dynamites the mine, he comes back and tells the story of his dad, why his dad was an abolitionist, why he did these things, and the burden his dad has placed on him. At the very end of the scene, Grace, from the mouths of babes, says, “You feel like a slave.” He looks up at her, Cora hushes her, takes the girl back up in the attic, and as Martin's going down, Cora grabs Martin and goes: “What were you doing with that little girl up in the attic and your wife not knowing?”

I felt that the scene was important while making the show. The way Damon [Herriman] performs his response—he says, “I would never.”—is so intense you know that was not happening. Now, for me, I wanted that information for the audience. This wasn't something that I felt was organically needed to be a part of the narrative. I wanted the information for the audience. Same with Homer. Here's this kid, and the actor doing such a great job. Because he is just a child, I wanted the audience to have just a moment with him that was tender and gentle. But you know that's not the narrative. That's why those were deleted scenes and not those included in the show. 

I was just at a Q&A at Berkeley, and I was describing that scene on the disc–because we had already sent it off to Criterion—and people in the audience when I said: He meets these guys, and they wash his suit . They went: Ahhhhhh . I said: See, see. Exactly . That is why [ Laughs ] it's not in the show. But they’re on the release, so people can see them. I think, again, going back to the idea of recording the commentary in the order that we filmed it, it's important for young filmmakers to see the choices we make as we create these things. We film the scenes and some of those scenes are great. They're very strong. But just because they're strong scenes doesn't mean they belong in the show. It doesn't mean they belong as a part of our narrative.

ny times book review underground railroad

As I’ve gone through and returned to your work, it’s always felt like “The Underground Railroad” was an aesthetic and sonic culmination of what you and your team—Nicholas Brittell, James Laxton, Joi McMillon —had been unconsciously or consciously striving toward. Sight unseen, “Mufasa” feels like a total departure, and a leaving of one era in your career to the next. Do you see your career separated by eras?

I don't [ Laughs ] As someone who grew up where I grew up, imposter syndrome will probably always be a part of my life. Having an era or a legacy doesn't mean anything to me. I'm moving piece to piece. And in moving piece to piece, the one thing I will say is those three works: “Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “The Underground Railroad," all are a piece. They're of a very similar tone. They're of somewhat similar themes. They have a similar feel. The movie I'm doing now was about doing something that did not feel like that at all. That wasn't made physically in the way those things were made. 

The least I'll say about it is, at a certain point, making a film is physical work. It's not just sitting in a coffee shop thinking of images. It starts to take a physical toll. Part of taking this job, there are individual layers to it, was getting to work differently, just for a bit. I knew that bit would be a few years, which maybe that was the amount of time I needed to be away from being in 95-degree swamps, trying to figure out how to make your days. 

But the other thing is there's always a feeling I'm chasing in these works. That feeling usually manifests as an image that I can see and the feeling that corresponds to it. Even in this piece I'm doing now in “Mufasa,” there was something in the script that was a feeling, and I knew the tools would be completely different. The challenge was, can you conjure the same kind of feeling with these tools? In a way, maybe it's an aesthetic risk because the tools are so different from the ones I normally work with. But that's energy, man. I could make another 10-hour show similar to “The Underground Railroad” right now. I could do that. But that would probably amount to the same kind of risk and generate the same energy. I wanted to try something different.

When “Medicine for Melancholy” was added to the Criterion Collection, you mentioned some reticence about being worthy of addition. Did you feel the same reticence with this, especially since Criterion rarely adds television? 

They don't often add television, but they do. When the “Dekalog” hit Criterion, I was like: HELL. YES. When “ Carlos ” hit the Criterion Collection, I was like: HELL. YES. When “Small Axe” hit the Criterion Collection, I was like: HELL. YES. And when the opportunity came to put this thing in the Collection: HELL. YES. ROBERT. I put my whole soul into the show, my whole soul. 

And to me, Criterion—this is what I had to learn through the process of speaking to them about “Medicine For Melancholy” and my own imposter syndrome hang-ups—is not about the idea that the films in the Criterion Collection are the greatest masterpieces ever. Although many of them are. It is about having a historical record of what we did as a species, telling stories with sounds and images. In that sense, the work I've done that is in the Collection, I feel very good about it being there alongside many people who I admire greatly. With this show in particular, I'm very pleased and honored because of the things we got to do, telling the story in a much more robust way.

I’m happy to know that, unlike in “Medicine for Melancholy,” John Waters didn’t have to swing in and save the day by convincing you to say yes. 

No, it was not. Although I am thankful to John for nudging me to get off my ass and accept the distinction. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the  New York Times ,  IndieWire , and  Screen Daily . He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the  Los Angeles Times , and  Rolling Stone  about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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Lens | from slavery to freedom: revealing the underground railroad, lens: photography, video and visual journalism, follow lens:.

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From Slavery to Freedom: Revealing the Underground Railroad

What would it mean to shed light on a part of history that remains largely invisible because it was conducted in secret and under cover of night? This was the challenge faced by Colson Whitehead, for example, in his award-winning novel, “The Underground Railroad.”

A clandestine and loosely organized network of activists, safe houses and secret routes, the actual Underground Railroad shepherded as many as 100,000 slaves to freedom in the six decades before the Civil War. Its route would eventually traverse free states from Maine to Iowa, extending as far north as Canada.

Through the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, a number of associated sites along the route have been identified and preserved. We also know the names of some of the brave black and white “conductors” who guided fugitive slaves, and “station masters” who ran safe houses in barns, churches, homes, caves or dug-out riverbanks. But the visual experiences of this journey have remained relatively obscure.

In Mr. Whitehead’s novel, which tells the story of a teenage slave named Cora, an abiding metaphor allowed him to summon a magical, dreamlike vision of this passage: He imagined the Underground Railroad as an actual train operated by engineers and conductors, transporting fugitives beneath the southern soil to liberation in the North. For the photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales, however, the challenge was more concrete: how to portray the paths and havens that, two centuries ago, had functioned as an itinerary for emancipation.

“Tracking the Deer.” Skirting the Osburn Stand, Mississippi, 2014.

Ms. Michna-Bales’s quest has led to an evocative book, “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs along the Underground Railroad” (Princeton Architectural Press). While much has been written about the subject, there has been little visual documentation, an absence that makes the book even more consequential, both from the standpoint of history and of our contemporary understanding of slavery in pre-Civil War America. The book also includes a foreword by Andrew J. Young, a civil rights leader, a history of the Railroad by the historian Fergus M. Bordewich, and a recounting of the journeys of three former slaves, including Frederick Douglass, by the scholar Eric R. Jackson.

Race Stories

DESCRIPTION

A continuing exploration of the relationship of race to photographic portrayals of race by the professor and curator Maurice Berger.

  • Rarely Seen Photos of Japanese Internment
  • A Photographer Who Made ‘Ghosts’ Visible
  • Black Male Glamour, as Style and Substance
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In her book, Ms. Michna-Bales envisions a single passage north, from Louisiana to Ontario. Her photographs are dark, atmospheric and haunting, depicting the 1,400-mile trek through forests, swamps, safe houses and other refuges along the way. They evoke both a sense of the adventure and peril of this journey, one that would have dire consequences if unsuccessful.

“Growing up in the Midwest, the Underground Railroad was understandably an important part of our school curriculum given that some of the routes ran literally through our backyards,” wrote Ms. Michna-Bales. “I became fascinated with the topic and often imagined what it must have been like to walk thousands of miles for the chance to be free.”

Years later, Ms. Michna-Bales, who is white and among a small number of white artists committed to exploring the issues of race in America, began to imagine “what the journey north to freedom on the Underground Railroad would have looked like through the eyes of one individual.” While conducting research at the Indiana Historical Society library she stumbled on a “gold mine” — a clip file that contained newspaper articles, photocopies of research papers, and other documents relating to the Railroad.

In the early Fall of 2012, while visiting her husband’s family in Tennessee, Ms. Michna-Bales made her first photographs in the series. “I had some prints made after returning home, and one image stood out,” she recalled in the book. “It was a forest at night that evoked such a sense of mystery and foreboding that I knew this was exactly how I wanted to shoot the entire series.”

“Follow the Tracks to the First Creek.” Just outside Richland, which had been a free black community. Stone Arch Railroad Bridge, Vernon, Indiana, 2013.

Her photo essay progresses dramatically: a ramshackle cabin on the Magnolia Plantation in Louisiana glows against the backdrop of the night sky; a slave cemetery in Jefferson County, Miss.; an upward and hopeful glance at a star-filled sky in Colbert County, Ala.; twisted thicket emerging from the forest floor in Tennessee; the first view of a free state, the gently rolling hills along the Ohio River crossing into Indiana; the “Old Slave House,” which belonged to the Rev. Guy Beckley in Lower Town, Mich.; and finally, freedom, represented as verdant trees photographed against a bright but cloudy sky in Sarnia, Ontario.

These dark and brooding photographs also evoke the radical underground’s groundbreaking activism: though devoid of people, they suggest the acts of bravery done in the shadow of an ever-powerful and dangerous white supremacy. “The Underground Railroad has been described as the first civil rights movement in the United States because it blurred racial, gender, religious and socio-economic lines and united people in the common cause of ending the injustice of slavery,” wrote Mr. Young.

There is one striking difference, however, between the two movements: If the modern struggle for civil rights was arguably the most visually documented American political movement of its time, the Underground Railroad was undoubtedly one of the least. To a certain extent, Ms. Michna-Bales’s compelling images help resolve this discrepancy and, in so doing, allow us to better imagine and grasp the Railroad’s physical and human dimension.

“I began to understand along the way that there were so many different people who made up the Underground Railroad, from freedom-seekers themselves to other slaves, free blacks, abolitionists, Quakers, Presbyterians, the wealthy, the poor, female, male,” wrote Ms. Michna-Bales. “My hope is that this project will help illuminate the darkened corners of our shared history and show us that when we work together great things can be accomplished. As Frederick Douglass may have wished, may we all come together through the darkness into the light.”

Maurice Berger is a research professor and the chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Follow @ MauriceBerger and @ nytimesphoto on Twitter. Lens is also on Facebook and Instagram .

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The underground railroad, by colson whitehead.

🏆  Winner of the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award

“We look at the whole of the book, rather than judging the word count, imprint, anything like that. And we wouldn’t have the numbers of entries we do if the divide between science fiction and literary fiction wasn’t breaking down. A classic example is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. That won a National Book Award in America, and was praised by Barack Obama as well as winning the Clarke Award.”

The Best Science Fiction of 2021: The Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

“Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad  recast an era of American slavery through science fiction and Namwali Serpell’s  The Old Drift put a science fictional spin on a long history of Zambia; both won the Clarke Award in previous years.”

The Best Science Fiction of 2022: The Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist

Other books by Colson Whitehead

Crook manifesto by colson whitehead, the intuitionist by colson whitehead, harlem shuffle: a novel by colson whitehead, our most recommended books, war and peace by leo tolstoy, on liberty by john stuart mill, middlemarch by george eliot, nineteen eighty-four by george orwell, the odyssey by homer and translated by emily wilson, the confessions by augustine (translated by maria boulding).

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The Underground Railroad is a towering series about the ways slavery still infects America

Amazon’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel turns a masterpiece into amazing television.

by Emily St. James

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Cora, played by Thuso Mbedu, looks directly at the viewer in front of a mural of a cotton field.

It is inevitably fraught for a white critic like me to discuss a work of art specifically about the Black American experience.

There’s a risk of coming off as patronizing at best and appropriative at worst, of seemingly trying to relate the pain, trauma, and horror that often rests on Black Americans to the personal pains white viewers may face in day-to-day life. Great art tells universal stories out of specific experiences, and it is possible and even desirable for white viewers to find personal resonance in the experiences of protagonists in movies like Do the Right Thing or 12 Years a Slave . But many such projects also ask these viewers to examine their own complicity in discrimination against Black people in America.

I may have dark stuff in my past, but I am not living beneath the same crushing weight of centuries of slavery and systemic racism.

A further complication: The art by Black artists most roundly celebrated is often about Black trauma. I love both Do the Right Thing and 12 Years a Slave , but both films ask us to look unflinchingly at the horrible ways America treats Black citizens. Rom-coms, family dramas, and superhero stories that center on Black characters and are less focused on Black trauma certainly exist, but the easiest way for a Black-centric project to win acclaim from the mainstream white critics who dominate our cultural landscape (including, again, myself) is to offer up some sort of trenchant social commentary, to focus on the horrific.

  • Pop culture lists are not activism

So I want to tread carefully in discussing The Underground Railroad , a 10-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel . In its portrayal of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave running less toward freedom than she is running away from slavery, the series tells a story about systemic racism and the perniciousness of white supremacy, offering an uncompromising look at the lasting and ongoing burdens of white America’s inhumane treatment of Black Americans. In no way should it be hailed as a story anyone can see themselves in.

But director Barry Jenkins (who won an Oscar in 2017 for his screenplay for Moonlight ) finds a way to encompass all of humanity in his work without so much as hinting at easy forgiveness for those who either do great evil or are complicit in great evil. The Underground Railroad made me feel things about my own life and personal pain very deeply, while never letting me forget that while I could relate to aspects of this story, it is not my own.

This series is a specific story about the treatment of one specific group of humans in one specific country. But it’s also a story about humans, and Jenkins gives you space to find yourself in it without sacrificing the focus of this story — even if you might not like what you see.

For an adaptation of a great novel by an acclaimed filmmaker, The Underground Railroad sure acts like a TV show. Good.

Ridgeway rides in a wagon, looking to recapture Cora.

Too often, when a great filmmaker makes a TV show, they simply stretch out their normal storytelling style to span more hours than they typically would. There’s a reason that Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 10-episode Amazon series Too Old to Die Young barely made a ripple when it was released in the summer of 2019, even though it hailed from a hip young director: The thing was slow as molasses. The cool, hypnotic rhythms of Refn’s work became glacial when expanded to fill so many episodes, most of which were over an hour long.

The Underground Railroad avoids this problem almost entirely. A couple of episodes sag, but for the most part, the series crafts a propulsive, episodic narrative whose storytelling draws from TV classics like The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive as Cora travels from place to place along a literal underground railroad — with a train and everything — trying to figure out precisely what’s wrong about every new location she finds herself in.

A lot of this structure comes directly from Whitehead’s novel, whose central conceit took Cora from the realities of plantation slavery in the early 1800s through several locations that became metaphorical looks at the Black American experience after the Civil War. Whitehead never sits you down and says, “The South Carolina section is all about the promise and ultimate withering away of Reconstruction” — and the South Carolina chapter (the second episode of the series) is about more than just that. But in its depiction of a world where Black freedom comes with heavy boundaries placed upon it by white people, it reflects America’s failure to properly restructure itself after the war all the same.

Here’s what ties together Whitehead’s conceit: Even as Cora is sort of traveling forward through time, she’s endlessly pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway (played by Joel Edgerton in the series) who longs to drag her back into slavery. The closer Cora gets to something like a world where Black Americans can live with freedom and dignity, the more doggedly Ridgeway pursues her. The country’s racist past always has a hand joined to its racist present, and Whitehead’s use of Ridgeway is a far more compelling exploration of this idea than any big, heartrending speech Cora could give on the matter (although several of the series’ characters deliver some amazing speeches).

Jenkins and his team have not only kept the episodic structure of Whitehead’s novel but made it more pronounced in subtle ways. Each episode of the series could fairly easily stand alone as its own tale, with casual viewers having only the most cursory understanding of the main characters and their situation.

Indeed, the series occasionally steps outside of Cora’s point of view entirely to fill in the histories of other characters around the story’s edges. These non-Cora vignettes were also present in the novel, but Jenkins and his team have made them important palate cleansers. Jenkins even changes aspect ratios and uses different filmmaking techniques to offer a kind of dreamy immediacy. The camera might pull up into a God’s-eye view of a village aflame, or an episode might unfold largely without dialogue until one long, blissfully talky scene near its end.

This heightening of the story’s already episodic nature allows Jenkins’s direction to judiciously select the moments in which it will highlight the utter inhumanity of white America’s treatment of Black America. The Underground Railroad is constructed like a series designed to be binge-watched — typically, the best shows to watch in a marathon have strongly delineated episodic stories that hook up into longer, serialized stories — but binge-watching this series would also risk reducing it to a pulp thriller.

To my mind, the show’s achievement is making every episode feel so full as to allow you to watch an individual installment, walk away for a while feeling like you’ve got a complete story, then return when you’re ready for another story featuring some of the same characters. (In that sense, it is somewhat similar to Steve McQueen’s 2020 anthology series Small Axe , though that series featured new characters in every episode, which The Underground Railroad does not.)

This structure allows the series to be brutal without ever feeling like it’s being brutal for brutality’s sake. The first episode features some horrific images of slavery, but it picks and chooses its moments. In one sequence, Jenkins cuts between white party guests barely paying attention to a slave being whipped in front of them, to the other slaves watching the whipping, to the face of the man being whipped with the man whipping him out of focus in the background. The build of the sequence allows the viewer to prepare themselves for what they’re about to see, while also making it clear that no one should want to see it.

A scene in which a slave master whips a slave has become almost a requisite of stories set in the pre-Civil War South, which perhaps speaks to how deeply the 1970s miniseries Roots (which The Underground Railroad consciously nods to at times) has codified how we tell stories about slavery in America. These tropes can feel ossified, in others’ hands.

But Jenkins makes this scene feel less like a trope or empty spectacle. He simultaneously ensures that the slave — a man we’ve barely known before this point — retains his humanity while those who don’t seem particularly bothered by what’s happening retain their humanity, in a different way. Jenkins doesn’t make the partygoers unfeeling monsters; he makes them desensitized, disaffected products of a society that actively encourages ignoring the pain and suffering in front of them, which consequently makes them key contributors to that pain and suffering.

The Underground Railroad ’s sound design also deserves special notice. In particular, the sounds of metal clanking are often boosted subtly in the soundtrack, so that whenever a door is swinging on its rusty hinges or a blacksmith is pounding away in his shop, we hear that sound a little louder within the soundtrack than we would if we occupied the same setting in reality.

It took me much of the series to pick up on how the prominence of the sound mimics the book’s use of Ridgeway, who constantly reminds Cora of how the institution of slavery threatens to recapture her. The clanking of metal recalls the shackles placed on slaves in the first episode; even when Cora is standing in a seemingly empty building, the sound of a chain jangling somewhere subtly haunts her.

The Underground Railroad tells a universal story about moving through PTSD — but it is still a very specific version of PTSD

Cora enters a dark room, holding only a candle.

In thinking about the series’ use of metallic noises, I started to understand why I found The Underground Railroad particularly moving, for reasons beyond its story and storytelling.

In Cora’s journey, I found a resonance with my own recent experiences of trying to claw my identity away from a past that would swallow it whole. The entirety of my adult life has felt like peeling back layers of rotten, nasty junk, some of which were bestowed upon me at my birth. The work of trying to escape the past and live in a better, freer present is the work of many in marginalized communities and of everyone who is fighting PTSD or other psychological issues stemming from trauma.

But here is where the double bind I mentioned at the start of this review comes into play. It is dispiritingly common for a story about specifically Black pain to be universalized into a narrative about either overcoming or succumbing to that pain, which inures white audience members from examining their own complicity in Black pain. After all, we’ve all felt pain at some point, right? And sometimes we overcome it or succumb to it? Wow! What a story about the human spirit! (So goes this kind of critical argument, at least.)

The flip side is possible, too. When a story is so specifically about Black pain that universalizing it is difficult for white audience members, the temptation on the part of white viewers is to turn that story into an accurate telling of “just the way things are.” John Singleton’s 1991 classic Boyz n the Hood , for instance, is an astonishingly well-made coming of age story set in South Central Los Angeles. But for too many white studio executives who tried to replicate the film’s success, its approach boiled down to “That’s just how things are in South Central, so that’s how you tell stories set there.”

The problem rarely has much to do with the Black artists telling these stories. Singleton had absolutely no control over how Boyz n the Hood would filter out into the mainstream culture. The fault is usually with white executives, critics, awards voters, and viewers, who are consistently eager to flatten complicated stories about Black America into a series of tropes designed to distance ourselves from our own complicity in a deeply racist society. Watching the right movies, then, becomes a kind of progressive self-vindication: I am vicariously experiencing this pain, and that makes me a good person.

I have no idea what white Americans who aren’t me will make of The Underground Railroad , but I do think Jenkins has found some ways around this dilemma. Notice how often he centers the act of viewing brutalities both grand and mundane: The early scene with the whipping, for instance, lingers on both the white audience and the Black audience for said whipping, observing the callousness with which the white viewers regard the spectacle, just so much window dressing for an afternoon picnic.

The strange time dilation of Whitehead’s novel also helps the series avoid a certain distancing effect. With other stories about slavery, white viewers sometimes come away with the incorrect notion that the inhumanity of racism is confined to a handful of specific periods in history: Even if we’ve still got problems today, at least it’s not like that anymore. Once Cora leaves the plantation, the new worlds she moves through often have eerie resonances with the present, in ways that discombobulate viewers who might be tempted to resign these stories to the distant past.

But perhaps Jenkins’s boldest gambit is one whose impact I’m only just now understanding as I write these words. I saw myself in Cora, despite our many obvious differences. She is in some ways an archetypal character, one who attempts to shed her past as efficiently as possible, only to realize getting rid of the past is never that easy. I want to shed my past, too, and have found it stickier than I hoped it would be.

Healing wounds is sometimes a lifelong process, and Cora is a character onto whom anyone in the audience could project their own journeys through their own pain. That projection is good. It’s what art is for, on some level.

But just when you might be getting comfortable with your read of The Underground Railroad — any read whatsoever — Jenkins will cut in images of the many Black characters from throughout the series, each one staring solemnly at the camera. I found this idea a little over-earnest, like a constant acknowledgment of the ghosts that haunt Cora, until it clicked in my head that by asking us to identify so strongly with Cora, Jenkins is inviting these ghosts to haunt us.

We place ourselves within the stories we consume. It’s a human impulse; to see yourself in Cora or any other character on The Underground Railroad is natural, and through the identification and empathy you build with her, you might better empathize with people in your own time and place. But as you are witnessing what happens to these characters, they are looking right back out at you, through the camera, across the gulfs of time. And what do they see when they look back?

The Underground Railroad debuts Friday, May 14, on Amazon Prime Video . It runs for 10 episodes that range in length from 20 minutes to 77 minutes. Yes, really. Trust me — it works.

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Reviews of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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  • Historical Fiction
  • 19th Century
  • Coming of Age
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ny times book review underground railroad

About this Book

  • Reading Guide

Book Summary

From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. Like the protagonist of Gulliver's Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Excerpt The Underground Railroad

THE first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no. This was her grandmother talking. Cora's grandmother had never seen the ocean before that bright afternoon in the port of Ouidah and the water dazzled after her time in the fort's dungeon. The dungeon stored them until the ships arrived. Dahomeyan raiders kidnapped the men first, then returned to her village the next moon for the women and children, marching them in chains to the sea two by two. As she stared into the black doorway, Ajarry thought she'd be reunited with her father, down there in the dark. The survivors from her village told her that when her father couldn't keep the pace of the long march, the slavers stove in his head and left his body by the trail. Her mother had died years before. Cora's grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  • How does the depiction of slavery in The Underground Railroad compare to other depictions in literature and film?
  • The scenes on Randall's plantation are horrific—how did the writing affect you as a reader?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • "The treasure, of course, was the underground ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

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Reader reviews, bookbrowse review.

Reading The Underground Railroad offers plenty of reminders of just how far our nation has come since these darkest years in our history, but also countless reminders of just how far we have yet to travel before we arrive at any destination resembling that hopeful vision... continued

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(Reviewed by Norah Piehl ).

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

by Colson Whitehead ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 13, 2016

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels ( Zone One , 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 12, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

LITERARY FICTION | HISTORICAL FICTION

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SEEN & HEARD

Colson Whitehead Wins Library of Congress Award

HOUSE OF LEAVES

by Mark Z. Danielewski ‧ RELEASE DATE: March 6, 2000

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest ) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

LITERARY FICTION

More by Mark Z. Danielewski

THE LITTLE BLUE KITE

by Mark Z. Danielewski

HADES

THE SECRET HISTORY

by Donna Tartt ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 16, 1992

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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THE GOLDFINCH

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ny times book review underground railroad

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The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

The Story of a Nation Built on Murder, Theft, and Cruelty

The specter of slavery draws unavoidable correlations to contemporary American society in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad .

ny times book review underground railroad

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad will become a canonical text, if it isn’t already. The novel shares affinities with the works of Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Frederick Douglass, while contributing to contemporary discourses on race. Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, Whitehead’s storytelling is vivid while his critique of America’s fundamental principles is dynamic.

The Underground Railroad is told through the life of the runaway slave, Cora. The novel begins on a Georgian plantation owned by the sadistic Mr. Randall. He enacts brutal violence in order to satisfy his own thirst for profit while creating a culture of subservience. Cora escapes the plantation assisted by another slave named Caesar. As she moves North, each state presents a different manifestation of terror. Throughout the novel Cora faces fear, humiliation, and the toxicity of systematic racism. Arguably these are the common characteristics of many slave narratives. However Whitehead’s novel stands alone for the raw parallels to contemporary society. The author does not lean on moralism to convey the text’s power, yet it’s impossible for any reader to avoid the correlations.

At times the novel attempts to be multigenerational. Readers learn about the capture of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, stolen from her West African village and shipped across the Atlantic in a disease infested slave ship. Ajarry’s narrative connects to that of her daughter Mabel ,who was the only slave to flee Randall Plantation and evade capture. That leads to her daughter Cora, from whom the novel springs forth. These women demonstrate a commonality that’s more than familial; the impact of mercilessness and trauma live on in their bloodlines through generations. America has yet to address this.

The backstories for the secondary characters are light and in some cases underdeveloped. Characters such as Caesar or Mingo, or even Cora’s mother and grandmother, despite central to the protagonist’s motives, are infrequently more than a plot device. The novel’s center, however, is Cora, who bears witness to systematic violence and oppression. Perhaps it’s unfair to critique Whitehead too harshly for failing to include each character’s testimony. There’s simply not enough time to fully develop each narrative.

The Underground Railroad is a work of fiction and this is evident by the historical liberties Whitehead utilizes. His underground railroad is a literal locomotive equipped with tracks, station agents, and tunnels instead of the series of safe-houses composing the actual clandestine network. Whitehead’s railroad is allegorical and reflects the erasure of African traditions and the problems plaguing African American culture to this day. Subsequently, the potential magnificence of the black experience becomes subterranean. As a result, readers are forced to question why only violence and oppression are anomalous to the black experience in our dominating narratives, when in fact African Americans have, in spite of this violent history, contributed greatly to the cultural and intellectual discourse of this nation.

Whitehead’s writing is magnificent while his storytelling strikes an emotional timbre that moves and infuriates, discourages but then reconstructs hope. for example:

Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always – the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude (28).

Truly barbarous, the descriptions demonstrate the extent of the violence against these subjugated people. In North Carolina Cora learns that the entire state expunged the black population and “the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes” (159). The language Whitehead utilizes is grisly by its vividness but necessary because of the historical reality. There’s reason to believe that hyperbole might taint some of the novel. Yet dismissing the slave narrative genre as too gruesome is myopic. Whitehead reminds readers that the United States is a nation built by violence. Social and racial harmony or even the notion of a post-racial society are delusions if we continue to ignore that America’s “foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty” (285).

Cora’s time in North Carolina also reminds readers to be critical of the historical record. The abolitionists who harbor Cora question their motives because they are terrified. The public lynchings that occur across the street from their home serve as a nightmarish panopticon underscoring their trepidation. Reluctant abolitionists are infrequently discussed in mainstream historical narratives. Typically abolitionists are framed as confident victors who rarely questioned their resistance: the archetypal white hero. The Underground Railroad disrupts our understanding of a comforting history while warning against anesthetizing the past.

Originally published in 2016, the need for texts such as The Underground Railroad is as necessary as ever. The character Arnold Ridgeway, the malevolent and tireless slave catcher, is an allegory for ICE agents and the contemporary culture of fear. Ridgeway wasn’t able to capture Mabel and his vendetta against Cora stems from unadulterated bloodlust. He believes in racial inferiority and the need to subjugate. Even parts of his speech and mission to protect “the American spirit… and destroy that what needs to be destroyed” (226) reflects modern xenophobic and isolationist diatribes.

It’s easy to let texts such as The Underground Railroad render the belief that nothing has changed except the players. But that’s not true. The Underground Railroad reiterates that social awareness and understanding of history can overcome contemporary fear mongering and voodoo racial harmony. Thereby Cora’s consistent need to move, speak-up, and adapt reminds readers to do the same.

  • The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize Winner)(National Book
  • Colson Whitehead

ny times book review underground railroad

Milam's Musings

“all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”.

  • Posted on February 18, 2024

Book Review: The Underground Railroad

ny times book review underground railroad

If you’re a Black person during slavery in America, freedom is a delusion, but perhaps a useful, necessary one, all the same. Such is my takeaway from Colson Whitehead’s 2016 book, The Underground Railroad , about Cora, a third-generation slave, running quite literally for her freedom via the Underground Railroad. Her grandmother died on the same Randall plantation she and her mother, Mabel, were born to, and then her mother escaped to freedom without her, causing bitter resentment to swell up within Cora. A slavecatcher, Ridgeway, has animus toward Mabel for absconding beyond his reach. However, we find out at the end of the novel that Mabel didn’t even experience a full day of freedom; she died after being bit by a snake in the swamps on her way back to the plantation to be with Cora.

Mabel’s is a fable fitting for the life of a slave in Whitehead’s book. Brutish life, brutish death; senseless life, senseless death. Luck, no luck, fate or no fate, and God or no God. When the lash is coming, or the barking dogs at the end of the slavecatcher’s leash, does it really matter? There are good people, like those who help Cora along the way of the Underground Railroad, and bad people, like the white folks in North Carolina who host Friday fun days dedicated to minstrel shows and hanging a black person for sport. But within the hearts of each they share the bond of fear, fear of the other, one justified and one not so much. Because within an America like this, even so-called freed Blacks — whether “safely” within the boundaries of the North or not — still fear that the delusion of freedom will be shattered by an angry slavecatcher, or for no reason at all, where like the swamp snake, a white man will bite and take it all away.

What makes Colson’s book particularly intriguing is that he takes the metaphorical and makes it literal: teeming underneath America is an actual underground railroad ferrying runaway slaves to different stations, like South Carolina, or Indiana. In fact, those in the South would be aghast to know that the Underground Railroad reaches as far as Georgia. In Colson’s book, vestiges of later time periods also populate the early 1800s: elevators and high-rise buildings, and the dastardly plot of South Carolinians and a pernicious “resurrectionist” doctor to use Black people as unwitting test studies to learn more about syphilis echoing the Tuskegee syphilis study. I think the former was Colson’s way of building the delusion of freedom, and safety, for Cora and the other freed and runaway blacks she built community with, first in South Carolina, and then later in Indiana. There’s even a figure, Lander, who comes to the latter community reminiscent of Frederick Douglass. He’s an orator and abolitionist. To the latter with the doctor, that was a plot point to show to Cora, and the others, that their freedom was indeed a delusion. That South Carolina wasn’t any more high-minded about Black people than the rest of the South.

Fortunately, Cora is able to continue fighting and running beyond the reaches of Ridgeway and others who would have her returned to her plantation and/or sullied and killed. Last we hear from her in the book, she’s escaped from the raiding of the Indiana community and is headed out to California, another delusion of a sort, the ephemeral allure of the West and its bounty.

Along the way of her journey, Cora often meditates on her situation, such as being free to roam, as it were, on the Randall plantation, but free from slavery, yet captive to a tiny attic in North Carolina while in hiding. Without chains or with literal chains fastened by Ridgeway, the mind of a Black person like Cora in America is always under threat, never fully owning your body or property. As she ruminates, “Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic, America remained her warden.” The psychological, and indeed, generational, trauma imbued in such a rumination speaks for itself. And this was part of the debate between Lander in Indiana and a formerly enslaved man, Mingo: Some Blacks are too traumatized by slavery to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” to paraphrase the latter, while Lander is more opaque about it. “For we are Africans in America. Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become.” Without precedent is itself a kind of freedom. Or a form of paralysis, depending on how you view it.

Whitehead’s book is written with insights about the messiness of America, to understate it, reminiscent of the underground tunnels he brings to life in his book, he excavates and extricates from the dirt truths about what it means to be a person endowed with personhood, or lack thereof. As the passenger of his book, I found myself wanting to pause along the route many a time to think about the sentences or Cora’s reflections, similar to how one conductor tells Cora to look out the train to take the full measure of America (I’m butchering that paraphrase, but that was the gist of it!). Whitehead’s book is not easy reading because it’s infuriating that people were like this, of course, and it’s not even a book with a happy ending, per se, even though Cora survives and is voyaging to California. After all, it’s still a delusion, if a useful and necessary one, that she’s free. In that America, hardly. Just free for now. But that’s still something. It has to be.

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The Underground Railroad in Art and History: A Review of Colson Whitehead’s Novel

By manisha sinha | november 29, 2016 | comments 4 comments.

Colson Whitehead’s eerily brilliant and deceptively simple novel, The Underground Railroad, is much more than a fictional account of historical reality. Like all inspired works of art, the book, even at its most fantastical, deftly unearths the horrible truth at the heart of racial slavery in a manner that very few historical works can accomplish. In his acknowledgements, Whitehead lists the scholars of slavery, race, and the Underground Railroad, who he relied on to write this novel, including Edward Baptist, Fergus Bordewich, Eric Foner, Stephen Jay Gould, and Nathan Huggins. He acknowledges, like most good historians, primary sources such as the iconic slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and the WPA slave interviews. And it is clear from the novel itself that he is familiar with the history of slavery, escape, race, and abolition. With perfect literary license, he borrows and appropriates from history to reveal the heart of darkness of slavery and racism in this country. The result is a lyrical and imaginative novel that is chilling in its clearheaded look at that sorry story.

whitehead-cover

Whitehead’s novel, which revolves around an enslaved woman, Cora, and her attempts to escape slavery in Georgia is not just an allegorical story of the Railroad but an extended meditation on the history of race and slavery. It starts not with Cora but her African grandmother Ajarry, and in pithy sentences conveys the horror that was the Middle Passage and the commodification of Africans through the Atlantic Slave Trade: “Chained from head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery” and “In America the quirk was that people were things” and “Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean.”

Cora, we learn early on, descends from a long line of resistant black women. Her mother Mabel is one of the few who has escaped slavery. Cora’s memory of her veers between resentment at being abandoned by her and a reluctant admiration for making good her escape. It is only at the end that we learn of Mabel’s miserable end. But for much of the novel she acts as a talisman of resistance. The vegetable patch that Ajarry and she bequeath to Cora, is a symbol of their endurance and enterprise. In fact when a fellow slave Ceasar asks Cora to escape with him, he does so because he thinks she will bring him luck as her mother is the only slave to make good her escape from the Randall plantation. The plantation is the scene of Cora’s own private hell, she grows up a motherless child with no protectors, and the horror of her gang rape is encapsulated in one short sentence, “The Hob women sewed her up.” The Randall brothers, one cruel and one indifferent, preside over plantations, where every manner of cruelty gets full airing. This is not the paternalistic slavery of the moonlight and magnolias myth of popular culture or of the dominant historiographical depiction from U.B. Phillips to Eugene Genovese. Yet Cora resists, shielding the body of a young enslaved boy, Chester, preventing his brutal initiation into slavery. For this act of defiance, Cora must escape.

And so begins Whitehead’s tale of the Underground Railroad, where the reader gets vivid snapshots of the history of slavery, scientific racism, and abolition. The metaphor for the railroad, a literal train with unknown conductors and sporadic branches that just might lead to freedom, is itself apt and gets to the historical truth in an essential sense. This was a dangerous, secretive, botchy enterprise in which the enslaved and their allies took huge risks and were always subject to recapture and torture emerges from this fictive account rather than the mythic, heroic accounts of the Underground Railroad that Kathryn Schulz claims the novel resurrects in her dismissive article “Derailed” in The New Yorker. [1] Each chapter begins with runaway slave advertisements reminiscent of Theodore Weld’s classic abolitionist indictment of slavery, American Slavery As It Is (1839). Significantly, it is the enslaved themselves who dig through and establish the lines and stations of the mysterious railroad. Whitehead’s literal underground railroad also quite remarkably illuminates the history of slavery through the story of Cora’s escape.

Each state that Cora moves through maps the historical geography of enslavement and freedom with Whitehead taking literary license to tell a broader story. Early on, the “City of Pennsylvania,” where organized abolition took root among Quakers and free blacks, is the only source of hope for the enslaved Ajarry. As a historian of South Carolina, however, I found it jarring to have this most rabidly proslavery and secessionist state reinvented as an antislavery haven where Cora and Ceasar find shelter and education, including a museum of black history that actually demeans it. The insidious reality soon emerges–the good teachers and doctors in the state are ardent eugenicists and scientific racists, trained in the best universities and hospitals of the nation and interested in preventing the propagation of an “inferior race.” This literary device in fact accurately evokes historical reality. Not only was South Carolina the birthplace of renowned antebellum scientific racists such as Dr. Josiah Nott and J.D.B. DeBow, but it was in Carolinian plantations that Louis Agassiz, the Swiss naturalist and president of Harvard, collected specimens, photographs of enslaved people, to prove his theory of polygenesis, or the multiple origins of man. Whitehead’s surreal portrait of the slave state of South Carolina allows the average reader to discover with Cora, how the pseudo science of race acted as a handmaiden to racial slavery.

Whitehead’s novel evokes the tropes of fugitivity and the abolitionist underground perceptively. In North Carolina, Cora inhabits the attic of her rescuer’s house quite similar to Harriet Jacobs, who describes years in her grandmother’s attic in her iconic female slave narrative set in the same state. Another escapes evokes Henry “Box” Brown, who famously parceled himself to freedom. But while Jacobs views her clueless master from her hidey-hole, Cora witnesses minstrel shows that etch racism in the popular American imagination and the dangling bodies of apprehended fugitives and those who assist them. A similar fate awaits her friend, Martin, and his reluctant accomplice, his wife, who are betrayed by their Irish maid. The state lies suspended between slavery and freedom in the novel, with gradual compensation (to slaveholders), emancipation laws, and anti-black legislation that prohibits free blacks from entering its boundaries, reminiscent of British and northern emancipation. Cora is just a step ahead and at times behind slave catchers led by the relentless and brutal Irishman Ridgeway, whose assistant Homer is rendered as a black oddity. Rich and poor, native and immigrant, young and old, are all, as Ridgeway puts it, in service to King Cotton in slaveholding America: “It’s a human tax on progress” and “Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh.”

When Ridgeway finally gets Cora in his clutches, there is a reversal of fortune quite common in innumerable histories of the Underground Railroad. A dashing free black abolitionist, Royal, rescues her in Tennessee. The state in the novel is a center of cotton, slavery, and the vast domestic slave trade. Cora is not just a damsel in distress; she has killed a young white boy attempting to apprehend her, a misgiving that keeps popping up throughout the novel, and fights back against her enslavers. With Royal she journeys to a black utopia set improbably in racist Indiana. Many free and independent black communities in fact got their start in the old northwest with their harsh black laws and proslavery politics. The utopian community is Valentine’s farm, a black man who feels himself tied to the enslaved: “As long as one of our family endured the torments of bondage, I was a freeman in name only.” Here fugitives like Cora find shelter, receive a practical and political education, debate the future of the race, where fugitives become fugitive slave abolitionists.

The figure of Elijah Lander, whose lecture at Valentine’s farm is a highpoint, does not just represent the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, as many reviewers have speculated, but the entire interracial abolitionist movement. Having just published a big book on abolition , I marveled at how deftly Whitehead constructs the character. Lander like the abolition movement is interracial, like David Walker he has published an Appeal , like William Lloyd Garrison he has authored a “Declaration of the Rights of the American Negro,” run afoul of Maryland law, and been nearly lynched in the streets of Boston, and like Douglass, whom he most resembles, he is a skillful orator famous on the abolitionist lecture circuit. It is during his lecture that a racist white mob attacks Valentine’s farm and raises it to the ground, felling Royal and Lander. But Cora survives and heads west, her journey like the story of black slavery and freedom, unfinished.

Whitehead’s novel has received many well-deserved laurels, including a choice of Oprah’s Book Club and the 2016 National Book Award for fiction. I can only give it my highest compliment as a historian of slavery and abolition. It gets at the black experience of slavery and freedom better than most history books.

[1] Kathryn Schulz, “The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad,” The New Yorker , accessed November 27, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/the-perilous-lure-of-the-underground-railroad .

Manisha Sinha

Manisha Sinha is professor and the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. Sinha’s research interests lie in United States history, especially the transnational histories of slavery and abolition and the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Her award winning book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, was published by Yale University Press in 2016.

ny times book review underground railroad

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4 Replies to “The Underground Railroad in Art and History: A Review of Colson Whitehead’s Novel”

Brilliant review! I just finished the book, was deeply moved. I teach high school American History (including David Walker), and I wasn’t sure about some of Whitehead’s history and some of his literary licenses. You do a beautiful job of honoring both and clarifying both. Thanks!

I very much enjoyed your review. I’m in the midst of reading the book right now and found your piece while googling Elijah Lander. One little quibble: Valentine’s farm is “razed”, not “raised to the ground”. Something that is razed is “destroyed to the ground.” That aside, excellent review!

I loved your review too and was also writing about “razed” not “raised.” Also “another ESCAPE (not ESCAPES) evokes Box Brown.” Thank you so much for the review.

Good review. Though the surreal/magic-realist/symbolic elements can blur with the realism, and I am not convinced the device of a literal underground railroad ultimately works. It was perhaps a missed opportunity to dispense with white saviours. A nitpick: I don’t recall any indication that Ridgeway is an Irishman. He grew up in the southern states, where his father was established as a blacksmith; when he sees European refugees disembarking, he doesn’t recall doing the same. And his name ‘Ridgeway’ is Anglo-Saxon (in which circles the “brutal Irishman” is something of a racial stereotype..)

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD Book Club Questions and Reading Guide

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Nikki DeMarco

The inimitable Nikki DeMarco is as well-traveled as she is well-read. Being an enneagram 3, Aries, high school librarian, makes her love for efficiency is unmatched. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is passionate about helping teens connect to books. Nikki has an MFA in creative writing, is a TBR bibliologist, and writes for Harlequin, Audible, Kobo, and MacMillan. Since that leaves her so much time, she’s currently working on writing a romance novel, too. Find her on all socials @iamnikkidemarco ( Instagram , Twitter , Threads )

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Looking for The Underground Railroad book club questions and a reading guide for your next meeting? Look no further.

The Underground Railroad Reading Guide

But first, what’s this book about and why should we read it?

The Underground Railroad is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel and New York Times best seller. It also won the National Book Award, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is also an Oprah Book Club pick . Note: this post may contain spoilers.

The Underground Railroad  Summary

This novel by Colson Whitehead follows the path of Cora, a third-generation slave, as she uses a literal (in this world) underground railroad to escape slavery in Georgia.

She’s an outcast on the plantation. Caesar, a new slave from Virginia, asks her to run away with him. At first Cora hesitates, but after another slave is caught and brutally tortured for trying to escape, she decides to leave with him. It’s then she discovers that the underground railroad isn’t a metaphor, but a series of tunnels and trains below the earth.

The reader follows Cora along her perilous route to in pursuit of freedom as she continuously tries to evade capture from a determined slave catcher.

Themes in The Underground Railroad

Before we get to the book club questions, let’s talk about some prominent themes in The Underground Railroad. One of the most obvious themes is that of survival. Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, is stolen from Africa and passes on her desire to survive to Cora’s mother, Mabel. Cora’s own journey north is fraught with obstacles that take great physical and mental fortitude to survive.

Another theme throughout the novel is that of fear, especially fueled by brutality. This starts on the plantation with the slave owners, but even between the enslaved people on the plantation with how Cora has to destroy the dog house built on her mother’s plot of land. This continues with violence throughout the book, but also on the settlement in South Carolina where doctors are sterilizing women without their knowledge and intentionally infecting men with syphilis to “study” how the disease progresses.

The Underground Railroad Book Club Questions

Looking for more general The Underground Railroad book club questions? We’ve got 40 to start with.

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The underground railroad, common sense media reviewers.

ny times book review underground railroad

Riveting, brutal story of woman escaping slavery.

The Underground Railroad Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this book.

Some big liberties are taken with historical accur

Slavery continues to inform relationships between

Cora has to fend for herself from a young age in a

Physical and psychological abuses of slavery are a

Lascivious behavior and fornication with animals m

Racial epithets. The "N" word and "pickaninny" use

Frequent mention of whiskey and how people change

Parents need to know that Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is compelling historical fiction with a few fantasy elements that stray from fact. It doesn't shy away from the cruelty and brutality of slavery in America. Although gore and detail are rare (a man in stocks is repeatedly whipped,…

Educational Value

Some big liberties are taken with historical accuracy, such as making the Underground Railroad a literal railroad. The experiences of enslaved people and those seeking to escape captivity brought to life will foster empathy and deepen understanding of how the "peculiar institution" affected individuals and an emerging nation. Encourages thinking about how slavery reverberates through generations of Americans; many of the issues tackled are still with us today, in slightly different but easily recognizable forms.

Positive Messages

Slavery continues to inform relationships between African- and European Americans to this day. Some of the reasons explored include the astonishing breadth and depth of slavery and the highly organized and systematic ways it operated in America, and of course the damage, sometimes irreparable, done to individuals and families, leaving scars that will never heal. Cora's hope that there's something better out there for her and her determination to find it gives us hope that we can get to a better place as individuals, different races, and a nation.

Positive Role Models

Cora has to fend for herself from a young age in a violent world where both her body and mind are constantly brutalized. She risks a certain whipping to help a child who's being beaten, and she stands up to a bully who tries to take over her garden patch. She's incredibly resilient, determined, and adapts to both good and bad situations. Her fellow fugitives from slavery and other people she cares about after she escapes are brave, gallant, and considerate. The hunter of enslaved people and patrollers show how deep institutional cruelty runs. Some White people put themselves at risk to help the Underground Railroad.

Violence & Scariness

Physical and psychological abuses of slavery are a central theme. There are many instances of cruelty and brutality mentioned (like being "peeled open by a whip"). A lot of sexual violence (rape, gang rape, coercion) is also mentioned but not described. Hanged bodies are described in some detail. A person who had escaped captivity but was returned is hung from a gallows by metal spikes through her ribs. A man in stocks is repeatedly whipped, castrated, and his genitals are sewn into his mouth, and he's doused in oil and burned alive. Mention that children are separated from their parents because one or the other is being sold. Blood is mentioned a few times but not described in detail. There's a shooting at point-blank range; blood and bone spattering mentioned. A massacre by guns and arson is described chaotically and without a lot of detail or gore. Some fights and scuffles with punches and kicks. A bad guy is hit in the head with a rock and dies a few days later. Robbing graves for bodies to sell to medical schools becomes an industry in Boston and mentions rival gangs in violent confrontations.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.

Sex, Romance & Nudity

Lascivious behavior and fornication with animals mentioned in false rumor. Nudity mentioned several times but no body parts described. A difficult birth and bleeding for days afterward mentioned. Tubal ligation as birth control discussed. A kiss and a hand on the hip between two consenting older teens or young adults. A dream involves kissing, undressing, caressing, and mentions that "she was wet and he slid inside her." Clinic patients are tested for syphilis, and the progress of the untreated disease is monitored, without their knowledge or consent.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Sex, Romance & Nudity in your kid's entertainment guide.

Racial epithets. The "N" word and "pickaninny" used many times. "S--t" (bodily function) a few times; "ass" (body part), "bitch," "t--ties," and "s--ts" (name-calling) once or twice each.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Frequent mention of whiskey and how people change when they drink it, becoming more talkative or more violent. A few scenes take place in saloons, and one good guy works in a saloon. Caesar has ale once, and Cora has a sip from a bottle of beer once.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Drinking, Drugs & Smoking in your kid's entertainment guide.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is compelling historical fiction with a few fantasy elements that stray from fact. It doesn't shy away from the cruelty and brutality of slavery in America. Although gore and detail are rare (a man in stocks is repeatedly whipped, castrated, and burned alive; there's a shooting at point-blank range), violence including whippings, rape, and psychological torment are mentioned frequently as part of enslaved people's everyday lives. The "N" word and "pickaninny" are used frequently; other profanity is infrequent but includes a few uses of "s--t" as a bodily function. Sexual content between older teens or young adults who are equals is rare, with kissing mentioned a few times but not described. One dream includes consensual penetration. Teens mature enough to handle this dark chapter in American history will have a lot to think about -- how the pervasive institutionalization of slavery still echoes through current events and how we're still talking about many of the same issues but in slightly different forms. Main character Cora gives us reason to hope things will keep getting better. Teens can be encouraged to research the book's issues online; as an Oprah's Book Club pick, it has a large presence on social media.

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Community reviews.

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  • Kids say (4)

Based on 1 parent review

Unflinching historical fantasy

What's the story.

When Cora is about 16 years old, she hears about THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD from Caesar, a an enslaved man who recently arrived on the Georgia cotton plantation where Cora was born into slavery. The Randall plantation is about to be inherited by a particularly vicious and cruel man, so Cora decides the time is right to join Caesar in his escape attempt. Not far from the plantation, the two are almost caught but narrowly escape and eventually manage to make contact with the Underground Railroad. In a scuffle with hunters of people escaping captivity, Cora hits one of them, who dies a few days later. Now Cora's not only a fugitive from slavery, but also wanted for murder. Notorious tracker of escaping enslaved people, Arnold Ridgeway is on their trail and will stop at nothing to return Cora to the plantation. As she continues along the Railroad, Cora's exposed to a different possible future in each new state she comes to. But with Ridgeway always on the hunt, will she ever be able to stop running?

Is It Any Good?

Colson Whitehead's riveting story of woman escaping captivity is an eye-opening, brutal, and remarkable study of tensions that pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, his depictions of the lives of enslaved people are thoroughly grounded in heartbreaking and hard-to-take reality; on the other hand, The Underground Railroad is literally a railroad, with engines and cars. Readers who can let go of the literal, and who can appreciate the Gulliver's Travels way that Whitehead shows Cora's possibilities, will get a deeper understanding of what slavery really was and how it continues to affect racism today.

Whitehead's narrative voice perfectly captures the pervasive tension and terror that define every moment of an enslaved person's life. The structure, lifted largely from Jonathan Swift, brilliantly both gives everything away yet somehow creates even more suspense and tension over the outcome. The cruelty and brutality make it best for older teens who are ready for an in-depth, unflinching look into America's shameful past and who are ready to talk about how it still affects us -- and how or whether we can heal from it.

Talk to Your Kids About ...

Families can talk about the violence in The Underground Railroad . Does it help you understand history and how it relates to current events? How?

Is it OK when authors change some historical facts to tell a story, or should they stick to how it really was? Why?

The character Lander says "We can never escape slavery, that its scars will never heal." Do you agree? What about life today shows us that the scars have or haven't healed?

Book Details

  • Author : Colson Whitehead
  • Genre : Historical Fiction
  • Topics : Great Girl Role Models , History
  • Book type : Fiction
  • Publisher : Doubleday
  • Publication date : August 2, 2016
  • Number of pages : 320
  • Available on : Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
  • Last updated : August 23, 2016

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ny times book review underground railroad

Reviewed: Oprah's Book Club pick 'Underground Railroad'

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is the newest Oprah's Book Club selection. "I think there's no better book for a time such as this," Oprah said on CBS This Morning.

The novels of Colson Whitehead have never done much for me. They tend to play out their postmodern games – an odd culture of elevator worship, a zombie-chaser named Mark Spitz  – in ways that are adroit and intelligent, but rarely very alive. I picture a powerful bank of servers somewhere making them, whirring coolly in the dark.

Not any more. Whitehead’s masterful, urgent new book The Underground Railroad  (Doubleday, 320 pages, ***½ out of four stars) abandons his earlier style. There’s precisely one game in it: the railroad of the title becomes an actual means of physical transportation, which the book’s heroine, Cora, uses to flee her brutal existence on a Georgia plantation. The vivid, heart-clutching narrative of her escape takes care of its own implications about the enormity that is America slavery. And Whitehead, loosed from the responsibility of supervising his readers so tightly, looks here, after years of muted reports that he might be, like a major American novelist.

The Underground Railroad  is a picaresque novel, following Cora as she moves between varyingly safe havens on her way north. (One comparable novel in that respect – concerned, too, with the helplessness of an individual trapped inside a mad nation – is The Orphan Master’s Son , by Adam Johnson.) On her trail is a towering, black-hearted slave catcher named Ridgeway.

Cora lives with the runaway’s permanent sense of fear, because she knows that if she’s caught her fate will be days of torture, followed by death. In a South Carolina town she lives in a dormitory with other black women, and receives some education, which she later develops at an Indiana farmhouse with its own library. There’s a long, tense section when she’s trapped in the attic of a Shirley Jackson-style town in which the lynchings are theatrical. At each of these places characters pass in and out of view, often just for a page or two, reminiscent of the anonymous man Primo Levi describes meeting after the Holocaust: “He told me his story, and today I have forgotten it, but it was certainly a sorrowful, cruel, and moving story; because so are all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity.”

A tragic, disturbing necessity: that describes the feeling of The Underground Railroad .  The book has imperfections – Ridgeway’s gang brushes just up against kitsch, for instance – but these imperfections are overwhelmed by its immense vitality. “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies,” Whitehead writes, and reading just how callously that fuel was burned we feel rage, rage, rage,  unspendable, and therefore descending into sorrow. The parallels to our own time are too agonizingly obvious to require enumeration.

There are authors – Jorge Luis Borges, Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis – to whom a sense of play seems intrinsic, defining . In Whitehead, by contrast, it has struck me as a resistance to emotion, a defendedness. In The Underground Railroad he seems raw at last. The result is one of the finest novels written about our country’s still unabsolved original sin.

Charles Finch is the author of Home By Nightfall .

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Book Reviews

In 'stolen,' five boys are caught in a reverse underground railroad toward slavery.

Ilana Masad

Stolen

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In the second episode of 1619 , journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones' New York Times -produced podcast , she interviews sociologist Matthew Desmond about the ways in which the institution of slavery in the United States both drove and was driven by economic concerns.

"[M]any of our depictions of the cotton plantation are bucolic and small," Desmond says at one point. "[Y]ou might see a handful of enslaved workers in the fields, and an overseer on a horse, and then the owner in a big house. That's not how it was. It was incredibly complex... [C]omplex hierarchies with mid-level managers... Complicated workforce supervision techniques were developed... Professional manuals and credentials were developed... But behind all the sophistication, behind all this capitalistic rationality, was violence."

Indeed, slavery wasn't an institution driven solely by cruelty — although it was unendingly cruel and surely some of its enforcers relished its violent backbone — but by money. The sophistication Desmond speaks of was made possible, of course, by the law, which until the Thirteenth Amendment, allowed for the trade in human beings. The legal aspects of the institution, as well as the mental gymnastics surrounding what was illegal under the same laws, create a deeply unnerving undercurrent throughout early American history scholar Richard Bell's new book, Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home .

Meticulously researched — the footnotes take up about a sixth of the book, and are worth looking at — Bell's narrative follows the kidnapping of five black boys from Philadelphia in August 1825. Four of the children had been raised free: Enos Tilghman, 10; Alex Manlove, 8; Joe Johnson, 14 or 15; and Cornelius Sinclair, 10. The fifth boy, Sam Scomp, also 15, was a new arrival in Philadelphia, having recently run away from one of the last slaveholding plantations in New Jersey, where many of his family members remained. While the four other boys knew to be wary of white men taking too much of an interest in them, they and Sam all trusted the brown man calling himself John Smith who offered them easy work for more pay than they'd normally get for it. But the mixed-race John Purnell, which was the man's real name, was employed by an expansive interstate kidnapping crew run by Joseph Johnson. And as soon as the boys arrived on the ship that supposedly held fruit for them to unload, they were ambushed, chained, and locked in the hold.

This kidnapping was not an outstanding or rare occurrence. Even as the Underground Railroad ferried enslaved people running north towards freedom, Bell writes that "[o]n the Reverse Underground Railroad, free black people vanished from northern cities like Philadelphia and were made to trudge southward and westward to be sold into plantation slavery." We hear less about this horrendous practice than we do about its inverse, but it was rampant, and the "volume of traffic on the two railroads was roughly the same."

After 1808, when the importation of foreign-born humans was outlawed in the United States, the domestic slave trade — which was still legal — saw a boom, and like any business legitimate in the eyes of the law, it had its black market, which was where the snatching of children away from hearth, home, and freedom came in.

The great, outrageous irony of Bell's book is just how the children, made to march south along with two women, managed to return home. Southern plantation owners relied on the legality of the slave trade in order to make their money; in order to retain this shiny legitimacy, they claimed to want no part in the illegal trade in kidnapped people, although there was clearly a market for cheaper options in the purchasing of human bodies for their wombs and labor.

Yet in order to retain their law-abiding status, several prominent southerners played integral roles in securing these kidnapped children's freedom. One of them, Mississippi's attorney general Richard Stockton, wrote that while slavery was legal in the state, no one held "in greater abhorrence" the illegal trafficking in stolen people. "This calculated antipathy for child snatchers," Bell writes, "had the great benefit of deflecting the attention of anti-slavery activists in the North away from the far larger legal slave trade between the Upper South and the Cotton Kingdom."

Stolen is a remarkable narrative, in part, because of how Bell manages to clearly relate the complex politics of the time without ever legitimizing the choices made by those who bought and sold human lives. It's also wonderful for the ways in which Bell infuses each stage of the children's harrowing ordeal with empathy, focusing in on what they might have been feeling, drawing either from the precious little that remains of their own voices or from contemporary accounts of similarly traumatic kidnappings.

In telling as full a story as he can, Bell gives voice to the broader implications of this episode while not losing sight of all that is specific and singular about Tilghman, Manlove, Johnson, Sinclair, and Scomp's experiences.

Ilana Masad is an Israeli American fiction writer, critic and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories . Her debut novel, All My Mother's Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.

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Culture | Books

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead - review

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When you’ve won both a Pulitzer and the US’s National Book Award for Fiction, and are able to put the words “‘Terrific’ — Barack Obama” on the front cover, then inclusion on the longlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize may seem like small potatoes. But if it means a few more people take notice of this extraordinary novel, then it is nothing to sniff at.

The Underground Railroad was originally the network of secret escape routes from the slave states of pre-abolition America. Here, Whitehead turns the metaphor into reality or, rather, alternative reality. This is an America where the Civil War never took place, and where the patterns of liberation as they actually happened are skewed. (The book has also been shortlisted for the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction.)

The first 70-odd pages are conventional enough, if that’s the right word to describe the appalling suffering of slavery. Told in a clipped, efficient and highly effective manner — this is Whitehead’s eighth novel, so he knows what he’s doing — we read a story that will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the films 12 Years a Slave or Django Unchained. (Or, for that matter, 1977 TV drama Roots.)

It is certainly distressing enough, as we read of the pepper water rubbed into a slave’s “peeled” back, or the “feet cut off to prevent escape and the hands cut off to prevent theft”.

Cora, the heroine — we might as well use that old-fashioned word — conspires with her fellow slave Caesar to escape. It is all that anyone dreams of, but Cora’s approach to womanhood gives her a greater urgency, for obvious reasons.

Meanwhile, she is being pursued remorselessly by the slave-catcher Ridgeway and his enigmatic assistant Homer, a young black slave whose freedom Ridgeway granted, whom he employs not just as his assistant but — hence his name — chronicler. (Literacy is traditionally, in this kind of narrative, seen as a shorthand or gateway to liberty; here it is much more ambiguous, and there is a heartbreaking moment when we find that Cora, learning to read, stumbles over the word “optimistic”.)

The underground railroad itself (“Who built it?” Cora asks, and is answered, “Who builds anything in this country?”) while having its own, vaguely steampunky quiddity, is itself a vehicle transporting Cora, and ourselves, to different stations of the history of American slavery, various approaches, flawed, sinister, or downright evil, to the solution of the nightmarish situation. It’s a work that manages to work allegory, fantasy and history together, under the guise of straightforward, urgent, high-stakes adventure.

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ny times book review underground railroad

For all that this is a novel in which a different reality from the actual record arises, this is a work rooted very much in real history, real suffering. Whitehead’s acknowledgments extend to Franklin D Roosevelt “for funding the Federal Writers’ project, which collected the life stories of former slaves in the 1930s”. The advertisements offering rewards for the capture of runaway slaves that punctuate the book are taken from the digital collections of the University of North Carolina. There is much that is shocking in this gripping and important novel, but there are times when it feels as though these deadpan notices, plucked from reality, are the most shocking of all.

£10.49, Amazon, Buy it now

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  1. Review: ‘Underground Railroad’ Lays Bare Horrors of Slavery and Its

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  2. Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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  3. 42 Covert Facts About the Underground Railroad

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  4. Review: ‘Underground Railroad’ Lays Bare Horrors of Slavery and Its

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  6. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.

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COMMENTS

  1. Review: 'Underground Railroad' Lays Bare Horrors of Slavery and Its

    "The Underground Railroad," the latest selection of Oprah Winfrey's book club, chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, risking ...

  2. In Colson Whitehead's Latest, the Underground Railroad Is More Than a

    THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. By Colson Whitehead. 306 pp. Doubleday. $26.95. Colson Whitehead's novels are rebellious creatures: Each one of them goes to great lengths to break free of the last one ...

  3. Review: 'The Underground Railroad' Weaves an Epic Vision

    It's as if he has figured out how to funnel more feeling through a camera lens than anyone else. The world he depicts is terrible, in every dictionary sense — both horrifying and awe-striking ...

  4. It's Physical Work: Barry Jenkins on The Underground Railroad

    Told elegantly, with unfettered truthfulness, "The Underground Railroad" takes great care to tell the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu)—an enslaved woman seemingly abandoned long ago by her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), who decides to flee with her lover Caesar (Aaron Pierre) away from their plantation toward freedom.They are pursued by a brutal slave catcher, Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), and his ...

  5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

    COLSON WHITEHEAD is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of fiction and nonfiction, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award.A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City. Harlem Shuffle is the first book in The Harlem Trilogy.

  6. From Slavery to Freedom: Revealing the Underground Railroad

    A clandestine and loosely organized network of activists, safe houses and secret routes, the actual Underground Railroad shepherded as many as 100,000 slaves to freedom in the six decades before the Civil War. Its route would eventually traverse free states from Maine to Iowa, extending as far north as Canada.

  7. The Underground Railroad

    Commentary. "We look at the whole of the book, rather than judging the word count, imprint, anything like that. And we wouldn't have the numbers of entries we do if the divide between science fiction and literary fiction wasn't breaking down. A classic example is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. That won a National Book Award ...

  8. The Underground Railroad (novel)

    The Underground Railroad is a historical fiction novel by American author Colson Whitehead, published by Doubleday in 2016. The alternate history novel tells the story of Cora, a slave in the Antebellum South during the 19th century, who makes a bid for freedom from her Georgia plantation by following the Underground Railroad, which the novel depicts as a rail transport system with safe houses ...

  9. The Underground Railroad review: A towering miniseries

    For an adaptation of a great novel by an acclaimed filmmaker, The Underground Railroad sure acts like a TV show. Good. Joel Edgerton plays the slave catcher Ridgeway, who is constantly on Cora's ...

  10. 'Underground Railroad' Traces The Terrible Wounds Of Slavery

    Editor's note: This review contains language some may find offensive. Cora is 16, maybe 17; she's not quite sure. The protagonist of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is a slave on the ...

  11. REVIEW: Colson Whitehead Brilliantly Reimagines the Underground Railroad

    The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Doubleday Books 320 pp. By Kimberly Fain. In his latest literary tour de force, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead reimagines the network of routes and hiding places for escaping slaves as a literal railroad under the ground.He also returns to a narrative with a daring black female protagonist — something he has not undertaken since his ...

  12. Reviews of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

    Book Summary. From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her ...

  13. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

    This is a low point for Hunter's writing; elsewhere in the novel, it's stronger. Still, the characters remain flat and unknowable, while the novel itself is predictable. At this point, more than half a century's worth of fiction and film has been inspired by the Holocaust—a weighty and imposing tradition.

  14. Eric Foner Revisits Myths of the Underground Railroad

    Jan. 19, 2015. : An article on Thursday about a new book by the historian Eric Foner, "Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad," misspelled the given name of the ...

  15. Colson Whitehead

    The Underground Railroad disrupts our understanding of a comforting history while warning against anesthetizing the past. Originally published in 2016, the need for texts such as The Underground ...

  16. Book Review: The Underground Railroad

    February 18, 2024. by Brett. Book Review: The Underground Railroad. Spoilers! My copy of the book (a great find at Goodwill!). If you're a Black person during slavery in America, freedom is a delusion, but perhaps a useful, necessary one, all the same. Such is my takeaway from Colson Whitehead's 2016 book, The Underground Railroad, about ...

  17. The Underground Railroad in Art and History: A Review of Colson

    Colson Whitehead's eerily brilliant and deceptively simple novel, The Underground Railroad, is much more than a fictional account of historical reality. Like all inspired works of art, the book, even at its most fantastical, deftly unearths the horrible truth at the heart of racial slavery in a manner that very few historical works can accomplish. … Read More Read More

  18. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD Book Club Questions + Reading Guide

    The Underground Railroad Summary. This novel by Colson Whitehead follows the path of Cora, a third-generation slave, as she uses a literal (in this world) underground railroad to escape slavery in Georgia. She's an outcast on the plantation. Caesar, a new slave from Virginia, asks her to run away with him. At first Cora hesitates, but after ...

  19. The Underground Railroad

    April 11, 2017 8:00 PM. The author's 'Freedom Trail' is a far cry from the real one. Editor's Note: Colson Whitehead's novel The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction ...

  20. The Underground Railroad Book Review

    This book has young adult characters but is meant for a mature reader. It is very real about the physical, emotional and psychological trauma involved in being enslaved or an escaped slave in 19th century America. It is contemporary in its themes - certainly raises questions about race, fairness, and resources in current society.

  21. Reviewed: Oprah's Book Club pick 'Underground Railroad'

    1:02. Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is the newest Oprah's Book Club selection. "I think there's no better book for a time such as this," Oprah said on CBS This Morning. The novels of ...

  22. Book Review:' Stolen' Tells The Story Of Five Boys Caught In The

    Book Review:' Stolen' Tells The Story Of Five Boys Caught In The 'Reverse' Underground Railroad Richard Bell's true tale details how even as the Underground Railroad ferried enslaved people north ...

  23. Underground Railroad Book Review Colson Whitehead

    Switch to HD!Book Review of The Underground Railroad Novel by Colson Whitehead is a NY Times Best Seller. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book ...

  24. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

    Told in a clipped, efficient and highly effective manner — this is Whitehead's eighth novel, so he knows what he's doing — we read a story that will come as no surprise to anyone who has ...

  25. Book Review: Contemporary Art Underground: MTA Art & Design New York

    The New York City subway commute can be unpleasant: the rats, the packed cars, the schedule changes, the smells. But CONTEMPORARY ART UNDERGROUND: MTA Arts & Design New York (The Monacelli Press ...