The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club)

The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club)

by Colson Whitehead

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

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

Look for Whitehead’s acclaimed new novel, The Nickel Boys, available now!

Cora is a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood—where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him. In Colson Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era, he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is both the gripping tale of one woman's will to escape the horrors of bondage—and a powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385537049
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,184
Lexile: 890L (what's this?)
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Colson Whitehead is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, the 2016 National Book Award, and named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, as well as The Noble HustleZone OneSag HarborThe IntuitionistJohn Henry DaysApex Hides the Hurt, and The Colossus of New York. He is also a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of the MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. He lives in New York City.


Brooklyn, NY

Date of Birth:

November 6, 1969

Place of Birth:

New York, NY


Harvard College, BA in English & American Literature

Read an Excerpt

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 paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder, the price arrived upon after the standard haggling in Coast English. Able-bodied men and child- bearing women fetched more than juveniles, making an individual accounting difficult.
The Nanny was out of Liverpool and had made two previous stops along the Gold Coast. The captain staggered his purchases, rather than find himself with cargo of singular culture and disposition. Who knew what brand of mutiny his captives might cook up if they shared a common tongue. This was the ship’s final port of call before they crossed the Atlantic. Two yellow-haired sailors rowed Ajarry out to the ship, humming. White skin like bone.
The noxious air of the hold, the gloom of confinement, and the screams of those shackled to her contrived to drive Ajarry to madness. Because of her tender age, her captors did not immedi- ately force their urges upon her, but eventually some of the more seasoned mates dragged her from the hold six weeks into the pas- sage. She twice tried to kill herself on the voyage to America, once by denying herself food and then again by drowning. The sailors stymied her both times, versed in the schemes and inclinations of chattel. Ajarry didn’t even make it to the gunwale when she tried to jump overboard. Her simpering posture and piteous aspect, recognizable from thousands of slaves before her, betrayed her intentions. Chained head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery.
Although they had tried not to get separated at the auction in Ouidah, the rest of her family was purchased by Portuguese trad- ers from the frigate Vivilia, next seen four months later drifting ten miles off Bermuda. Plague had claimed all on board. Authori- ties lit the ship on fire and watched her crackle and sink. Cora’s grandmother knew nothing about the ship’s fate. For the rest of her life she imagined her cousins worked for kind and generous masters up north, engaged in more forgiving trades than her own, weaving or spinning, nothing in the fields. In her stories, Isay and Sidoo and the rest somehow bought their way out of bondage and lived as free men and women in the City of Pennsylvania, a place she had overheard two white men discuss once. These fantasies gave Ajarry comfort when her burdens were such to splinter her into a thousand pieces.
The next time Cora’s grandmother was sold was after a month in the pest house on Sullivan’s Island, once the physicians certified her and the rest of the Nanny’s cargo clear of illness. Another busy day on the Exchange. A big auction always drew a colorful crowd. Traders and procurers from up and down the coast converged on Charleston, checking the merchandise’s eyes and joints and spines, wary of venereal distemper and other afflictions. Onlook- ers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a lime- stone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain. Cora’s grandmother saw a little boy among the gawk- ers eating rock candy and wondered what he was putting in his mouth.
Just before sunset an agent bought her for two hundred and twenty-six dollars. She would have fetched more but for that sea- son’s glut of young girls. His suit was made of the whitest cloth she had ever seen. Rings set with colored stone flashed on his fin- gers. When he pinched her breasts to see if she was in flower, the metal was cool on her skin. She was branded, not for the first or last time, and fettered to the rest of the day’s acquisitions. The coffle began their long march south that night, staggering behind the trader’s buggy. The Nanny by that time was en route back to Liverpool, full of sugar and tobacco. There were fewer screams belowdecks.
You would have thought Cora’s grandmother cursed, so many times was she sold and swapped and resold over the next few years. Her owners came to ruin with startling frequency. Her first mas- ter got swindled by a man who sold a device that cleaned cotton twice as fast as Whitney’s gin. The diagrams were convincing, but in the end Ajarry was another asset liquidated by order of the magistrate. She went for two hundred and eighteen dollars in a hasty exchange, a drop in price occasioned by the realities of the local market. Another owner expired from dropsy, whereupon his widow held an estate sale to fund a return to her native Europe, where it was clean. Ajarry spent three months as the property of a Welshman who eventually lost her, three other slaves, and two hogs in a game of whist. And so on.
Her price fluctuated. When you are sold that many times, the world is teaching you to pay attention. She learned to quickly adjust to the new plantations, sorting the nigger breakers from the merely cruel, the layabouts from the hardworking, the inform- ers from the secret-keepers. Masters and mistresses in degrees of wickedness, estates of disparate means and ambition. Sometimes the planters wanted nothing more than to make a humble living, and then there were men and women who wanted to own the world, as if it were a matter of the proper acreage. Two hundred and forty-eight, two hundred and sixty, two hundred and seventy dollars. Wherever she went it was sugar and indigo, except for a stint folding tobacco leaves for one week before she was sold again. The trader called upon the tobacco plantation looking for slaves of breeding age, preferably with all their teeth and of pliable disposi- tion. She was a woman now. Off she went.
She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temper- ature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things. Best to cut your losses on an old man who won’t survive a trip across the ocean. A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth. A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money. If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities. She minded her place.
Finally, Georgia. A representative of the Randall plantation bought her for two hundred and ninety-two dollars, in spite of the new blankness behind her eyes, which made her look simple- minded. She never drew a breath off Randall land for the rest of her life. She was home, on this island in sight of nothing.
Cora’s grandmother took a husband three times. She had a pre- dilection for broad shoulders and big hands, as did Old Randall, although the master and his slave had different sorts of labor in mind. The two plantations were well-stocked, ninety head of nig- ger on the northern half and eighty-five head on the southern half. Ajarry generally had her pick. When she didn’t, she was patient.
Her first husband developed a hankering for corn whiskey and started using his big hands to make big fists. Ajarry wasn’t sad to see him disappear down the road when they sold him to a sugar- cane estate in Florida. She next took up with one of the sweet boys from the southern half. Before he passed from cholera he liked to share stories from the Bible, his former master being more liberal- minded when it came to slaves and religion. She enjoyed the stories and parables and supposed that white men had a point: Talk of salvation could give an African ideas. Poor sons of Ham. Her last husband had his ears bored for stealing honey. The wounds gave up pus until he wasted away.
Ajarry bore five children by those men, each delivered in the same spot on the planks of the cabin, which she pointed to when they misstepped. That’s where you came from and where I’ll put you back if you don’t listen. Teach them to obey her and maybe they’ll obey all the masters to come and they will survive. Two died miserably of fever. One boy cut his foot while playing on a rusted plow, which poisoned his blood. Her youngest never woke up after a boss hit him in the head with a wooden block. One after another. At least they were never sold off, an older woman told Ajarry. Which was true—back then Randall rarely sold the little ones. You knew where and how your children would die. The child that lived past the age of ten was Cora’s mother, Mabel.
Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean. The last of her village, keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips. As if it could have been anywhere else. Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citi- zens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.
It was her grandmother talking that Sunday evening when Caesar approached Cora about the underground railroad, and she said no.
Three weeks later she said yes.
This time it was her mother talking.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Underground Railroad, a triumph of a novel by Colson Whitehead.

1. How does the depiction of slavery in The Underground Railroad compare to other depictions in literature and film?

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

3. In North Carolina, institutions like doctor’s offices and museums that were supposed to help ‘black uplift’ were corrupt and unethical. How do Cora’s challenges in North Carolina mirror what America is still struggling with today?

4. Cora constructs elaborate daydreams about her life as a free woman and dedicates herself to reading and expanding her education. What role do you think stories play for Cora and other travelers using the underground railroad?

5. “The treasure, of course, was the underground railroad... Some might call freedom the dearest currency of all.” How does this quote shape the story for you?

6. How does Ethel’s backstory, her relationship with slavery and Cora’s use of her home affect you?

7. What are your impressions of John Valentine’s vision for the farm?

8. When speaking of Valentine’s Farm, Cora explains “Even if the adults were free of the shackles that held them fast, bondage had stolen too much time. Only the children could take full advantage of their dreaming. If the white men let them.” What makes this so impactful both in the novel and today?

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

10. How do you feel about Cora’s mother’s decision to run away? How does your opinion of Cora’s mother change once you’ve learned about her fate?

11. Whitehead creates emotional instability for the reader: if things are going well, you get comfortable before a sudden tragedy. What does this sense of fear do to you as you’re reading?

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

13. How does the state-by-state structure impact your reading process? Does it remind you of any other works of literature?

14. The book emphasizes how slaves were treated as property and reduced to objects. Do you feel that you now have a better understanding of what slavery was like?

15. Why do you think the author chose to portray a literal railroad? How did this aspect of magical realism impact your concept of how the real underground railroad worked?

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

Customer Reviews

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The Underground Railroad: A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read! Told in such a way to make you want to skip ahead to find out what happens next. My heart weeps for my ancestors who endured such cruelty, but it also rejoices to know that my people are a strong people to have endured such treatment. I don't usually reread books, but I will absolutely read this again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I expected to like this book. However i did not. The subject matter is very interesting. However did not like the writing style. The book was confusing at points with too many names etc. Further it just drops you at the end with no real conclusion.
Daenel More than 1 year ago
This is not a book that you like or dislike. This is a book that you read, put down, and think about for days on end. The subject is sensitive and the topics are still relevant today: violence against women/men, racism and the way it impacts all people, silence/{in}action in the face of injustice, education, and the idea of freedom. The characters were well written, sympathetic {when they needed to be} and monstrous {when expected}. I found myself invested in the characters. I didn't want to know just about the black characters, but the white characters as well. And Whitehead delivered. I liked the way he gave the characters a history and wrapped up each character's story without it being contrived or forced. I know some folks are bothered by the fact that Whitehead uses a literal underground railroad as the transportation system for escaped slaves versus a metaphorical one. I don't have a problem with this. This is a novel, not a history book, so I expect the author to use a bit of literary license. In fact, I would say that the idea of an actual underground railroad enhances the feelings of fear and anxiety about the known and unknown worlds that {escaped} slaves inhabited. This book does contain some violence, some of it is graphic {and sexual in nature}, but given the topic, that is to be expected. To show how engrossed I was in the story, I don't recall there being any harsh or coarse language, so if there was any it was used to propel the story and not just as a filler. I would recommend this book for discussion groups and literature classes. There is so much to unpack in this story that I'm afraid my review can't do it justice, but if you do read it, I'd love to discuss it with you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A story that just tears at your soul. Injustice upon pain, upon a story so searing that this old white guy will never forget.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book weaved stories within known history. I couldnt put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You could easily choose to never finish this book. The horrors are so precise and devastating and his research complete. You could stop reading but I pray you continue. Be courageous. We owe it to the millions of people who lived through the horrors of slavery to hear more stories. And the underground railroad? It may not have been literal in history but it's impact is just as lasting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Overall, a good story. Eye opening for me- saw a side of slavery that i was not familiar with. But the story was choppy without a clear plot line. Will not try to read another book by this author.
KrisAnderson_TAR More than 1 year ago
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tells the story of Cora and her life as a slave. Cora is a slave in Georgia. Cora is the daughter of Mabel and the granddaughter of Ajarry. After Cora’s mother escaped, Cora was alone. Cora is treated horribly by the other slaves. She gets thrown out of the where she was living with her mother and is forced to move into the Hob (a house for the slave outcasts). One day Cora is approached by Caesar. Caesar is a new to the plantation. His previous owner was a kind woman who taught him to read. She had promised Caesar his freedom upon her death, but she did not keep her promise. Caesar tells Cora about the Underground Railroad. The two of them form a plan and one day they take off. Unfortunately, things do not go quite as planned. Lovey, a fellow slave, follows them (she had been watching them). They are going through the swamps to make capture more difficult, but they did not anticipate hog hunters. The hunters realize they are runaway slaves and attempt to capture them. One of the hunters (just a boy really) ends up dead from a rock. Cora is now wanted for murder. Lovey ends up getting captured. Cora and Caesar quickly make their way to the first stop for them on the Underground Railroad. They are in for quite a journey. Some of the stops will be quick and others will be quite lengthy. Will they ever be completely free or will they continue to be hunted (especially Cora)? Ridgeway is a slave hunter who has something to prove. Ridgeway was given the task of finding Cora’s mother, Mabel. He was never able to capture her. Ridgeway is very determined to return Cora to her owner. To find out what happens to Cora and Caesar, you will have to read The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad is a very dark novel. The majority of the novel focuses on Cora (poor Caesar). I found the writing to be awkward and difficult to read (I just did not like the author's writing style). The book lacks flow. First we are with Cora, then it jumps to someone else, then back to Cora, and then to another character. It will also go back in time to tell you the backstory of the latest character (when Cora meets someone new on the Underground Railroad). It makes it hard to read and to get into the story. I was able to finish the book, but I did not like it or enjoy it (sorry). You need to be aware that The Underground Railroad contains very graphic violence. Some of the violence is very disturbing and upsetting. I give The Underground Railroad 2 out of 5 stars. I did like Colson Whitehead’s take on the Underground Railroad. He had tunnels running all over the United States and actual trains. I was curious, though, how people above ground did not hear the loud engines of the trains. Mr. Whitehead did capture the time and place quite accurately. The ending was extremely dissatisfying.
MerryWifeofWindsor More than 1 year ago
When I saw this book was suggested by Oprah Winfrey (knowing her pretty good taste in books), I sat down to read it. I had initially thought this to be a standard historical fiction work. General historical fiction books often tend to emphasize the historical accuracy. With Mr. Whitehead’s book, there is a lot of historical inaccuracy but in my opinion, that adds to the appeal. That being said, I am often a stickler for historical accuracy in a historical fiction work but Cora’s travels border on the folkloric. Mr. Whitehead’s book “Underground Railroad” came across as very jarring and very real to me but at the same time, bordering on the fantastical. This book is the imagined world of the author who envisions the historic abolitionist network, the Underground Railroad as a series of subterranean tracks and tunnels. On numerous occasions, Cora is in a dark subterranean locale and there are always a set of tracks involved. The men who shepherd herself and her fellow escapees such as Caesar, are referred to as conductors and that is something I found curious. Although it wasn’t entirely clear to me in the beginning, towards the end I began to realize that this book reminded me of something akin to Dante’s "Inferno", Homer’s "Odyssey", or Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland." While the story has its folkloric aspects, the horror of slavery and the depiction of one man’s inhumanity to another was very real. Since I don’t want to ruin any surprises, I will be vague here, but there are multiple instances where white Southerners treat the enslaved people in a terrible manner. There is one instance, when Cora is in North Carolina, when the white people gather together to celebrate a Friday evening together. These evenings consist of a people getting together to celebrate their “good fortune” but they always conclude the event with hanging an escaped slave. I found this a difficult book to stomach and there were instances where this book brought tears to my eyes. Overall, it was a good book and a worthwhile one to read. The imagination of the author combined with the larger-than-life personality of the heroine, Cora was refreshing. Cora grew up in a harsh environment where she had to fend for herself and where there was very little kindness showed her. Despite all of the adversity she came up against, she always had a fighting spirit and that endeared her to me. Along with Cora, I enjoyed the characters Caesar and Royal who both were unique in their own ways. Do I recommend this book? Yes. It was interesting and I was engrossed from start to finish. Reviewed by the Merry Wife of Windsor. ****
Anonymous 3 months ago
Worth reading and brings the immorality of slavery clearly in view
Anonymous 8 months ago
A spellbinding read.
Anonymous 11 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting history that I knew little about. Chose it for my book club and am having a women speak on the underground railroads in our area.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wanted to like this and never really felt it developed enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A historical treasure. ~*~LEB~*~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love that it ends with great possibilities!!!
alexcan3 More than 1 year ago
A powerful read. A bit confusing in the begin, for me, as it relates to narrative flow, but this resolved quickly, and I was able to follow the storyline and liked the structure. I liked the weaving of Cora's story with a chapter in-between sharing the background of another important character. I enjoyed the imaginative quality of a literal "underground railroad". Many well-written sections are difficult to read and imagine. They are violent and heart-wrenching. However, I believe they are necessary and should not discourage a potential reader.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a good novel. I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the events and trials that the main character endured. I would have liked to know how she finally came to rest in a "normal" life. Espically considering all the pain and hardship she endured. I would have given this novel more stars if it didnt just end so abruptly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was very excited about reading a piece of historical black fiction with my husband who is not black but was very interested in the topic. Unfortunately, the writing style was a challenge to read making it less of a page turner. I also found the ending to be disappointing and abrupt. Overall a decent book but it could’ve been so much more!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Outstanding. Buy it, read it, love it!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Always told myself there was freedom possible. What I found in reading this book was strength, grace, and mercy. A book of truth in heart, of souls,and of a land that states it is based on freedom. Worth reading, worth understanding the cause and a need of hearts to see and decide to change.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed getting to know the inner workings of Cora’s life and all the struggles she went through. However, the book goes off in too many different directions during the scenes. There are too few really climatic parts. It it did make me think a lot.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a spellbinding story of not only one woman’s struggle. It gives us an overwhelming sense of the entire era of slavery. In these days of 2017 and beyond when adherents of white supremacy have come again out of their grotesque shadows, we feel the depraved power of the past, undead.