book club

Book Club: The Underground Railroad

By Stephanie Nuzzo June 30, 2017

Welcome back to Smooth Book Club, where we read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

This month, our book-loving team read Colson Whitehead’s ​The Underground Railroad (Hachette). The book is a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner, 2016 National Book Award winner and was a #1 New York Times Bestseller, #1 Time Magazine Book of the Year, and the #1 Amazon Book of the Year.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, and they plot their escape. Matters do not go as planned - Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her - but they manage to find a station and head north.

In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is not a metaphor - a secret network of tracks and tunnels has been built beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, where both find work in a city that at first seems like a haven. But the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens - and Ridgeway, the relentless slave-catcher sent to find her, arrives in town. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing journey, state-by-state, seeking true freedom.

Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey - Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in states in the pre-Civil War era. 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.

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Our thoughts:

"I knew after reading the blurb this would be a difficult read for me. In all honesty I’m more of a chic-lit kind of girl, and having said that I must also admit that despite the amazing reviews I had read on The Underground Railroad (there were many and they made me feel pretty bad for what I’m about to say) I just couldn’t quite get into it. 

The beginning of the book felt a little slow to me and there were just so many characters that it got a little confusing. I will say though, that it did start getting more interesting for me by the time Cora finds the underground railroad. Unfortunately, this book wasn’t my cup of tea and I wasn’t able to finish it. 

If you’re escaping winter for a beach holiday this winter and looking for an entertaining and light read, I wouldn’t suggest this book for you. But if you’re the type that likes a serious read, one that probably makes you feel smarter for having read it, then this is the book for you. I wish I could say that was me, but life is serious enough and this wasn’t quite the escape I was hoping for."

- Marni

"For me, The Underground Railroad was not an easy read, but an important one. The tragic story is difficult to accept and chilling to imagine, as tales of horrific times in history often are... but that's what makes it so powerful. 

I'd recommend this book to history buffs, but be prepared; it may break your heart a little."

- Steph

"Colson Whitehead provides an accurate and harrowing tale of American slavery in The Underground Railroad. The book is quite descriptive and takes its time to helps contextualise the reader. There are several names and locations mentioned throughout which also adds a layer of complexity to understanding the goings-on, particularly in the beginning of the book. Although a strong depiction of the horror of escaping slavery, The Underground Railroad is not a book I would ordinarily pick up and don’t think I would read again."

- Chantal

"I found The Underground Railroad quite a tough read. Not only because of the content itself which is quite confronting to think people ever lived or treated one another that way, but I also struggled to understand the ins and out of the storyline. There’s a lot going on and you really need to dedicate time to understanding who is who to understand the plot. There are a lot of names thrown around making it difficult to understand what’s actually happening at times. But none the less it is a captivating and heartbreaking story, if you’re willing to give it the time, reminding us all about the horrors that took place during the slavery era in America."

- Sam

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Image: Hachette / Instagram