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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2017

The Newest Oprah Book Club 2016 Selection

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.

©2016 Colson Whitehead (P)2016 Random House Audio

What the critics say

"Bahni Turpin's narration is near perfection as she captures the emotional heart of this audiobook.... By using well-crafted dialect and authentic-sounding accents, Turpin believably dramatizes the wide range of characters.... Turpin's strong performance combined with author Whitehead's affecting writing makes this the one audiobook you cannot miss." (AudioFile)

What members say

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  • JQR
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 2016-12-01

Stupendous book, hard to follow in audio

I started this on a drive but ended up buying the Kindle version and reading it. It's one of the best books I ever read; deeply moving, vivid, and important. But his time cuts and character introductions make it hard to follow as a listener. The reader was fine; it's the book's structure that's challenging.

19 of 21 people found this review helpful

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  • serine
  • 2016-08-07

Great info, weak story

The subject matter is wonderful and I applaud the efforts of the author to include many details that are often isolated to academic articles. However, though strong on the academic side, the storytelling failed to engage me in the way that really good historical fiction should. I feel almost bad giving a book with a fantastic subject less than a fantastic review, but it simply didn't live up to the hype. The good news is that there is still room for an author who can provide excellent research *and* an engaging story.

I would say that the subject matter is important enough that I would recommend this book, even if the story could have been better.

49 of 65 people found this review helpful

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  • Brandie
  • 2016-08-03

Gripping

The narrator was excellent! I was unable to out it down! I plan to recommend this book to friends and family.

48 of 66 people found this review helpful

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  • Mel
  • 2016-08-14

Imagining a railroad underground


Whether an author resents the spotlight (Franzen) or views the distinction as manna from heaven, once a book has been branded with The Oprah Winfrey Book Club sticker, I generally feel inclined to pass – only because I am concerned my opinion will be swayed by the shadow of the mega-star. Even here, with a subject I am drawn to, I have to wonder if this is a book that I would have read, and in hindsight I think it's a good book that got a boost. Either way, it was a worthwhile read that I would recommend on its own merits. My early desire to learn about slavery in America was actually ignited by way of Siam (Thailand), circa 1860....

Margaret Landon wrote a novel based on the diaries of Anna Harriette Leonowens that in 1956 would become the fifth musical by the acclaimed team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The novel was Anna and the King of Siam; the musical was The King and I starring Yul Bryner and Deborah Kerr. As a young child, I saw the film on TV, but I wasn’t too young to experience one of my first *Aha Moments.* The servants of the king stage a surreally beautiful Siamese version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." I told my mother I wanted to be a dancer, and more importantly, I wanted to read the book about Uncle Tom's Cabin. I wouldn't sit down with Eliza, Tom, and the monstrously cruel Simon Legree until years later, but Stowe’s 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly,” even though less grand than I expected, ignited the initial spark that helped me understand the inhumanity of slavery.

Author Colson Whitehead sets out to give us history through the haze of a nightmare, imagining the legendary Underground Railroad as an actual train that actually runs underground. Whitehead's railroad is a white-knuckle dark journey where the desperate passengers must blindly put their trust in shadowy strangers; directions and destinations are obscure; the cost to ride may very likely be the escapee's life, or possibly abuse that could make them wish to be dead. To set out to even find the passage to freedom is to step off into the unknown. It is a riveting and emotional read that’s hard to put down. Parts of the story felt nightmarish, otherworldly: the towns where the slaves would hideout, the weekly hanging spectacles, the betrayal by neighbors; at times it had a bizarre carnival atmosphere.

The story succeeds in the tradition of most books in this genre, reminding us of the barbarism and unimaginable cruelties endured by these men, women and children. Additionally, I felt it was more psychological, drawing the reader into the strategies and thinking of Cora. The writing needs to be noted; it is incredible. Whitehead has plenty of official accolades and awards -- it's obvious as you read Underground Railroad that he is an author that deserves the attention. In the future, if considering a novel, his name will be a selling point for me
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My feelings, however, were conflicted. I didn't love the actualized metaphor of the underground railroad. I felt in some way it simplified the journey of these people in an otherwise excellent novel. Underground Railroad is worth a read, a reminder – it’s another chapter of the experience, but it didn't enlarge the facts or expand the experience for me. The perspective of imagining, the *what-if* hovered over the story like an interruption. It might be the specter of The Oprah Winfrey Book Club sticker, but it's hard for me to rate this completely objectively. I stick to my first opinion...a good book that got a boost.

54 of 76 people found this review helpful

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  • Shelley
  • Newburgh, IN, United States
  • 2016-08-09

Hard to follow

I was interested in the premise of the book. For there to be an actual Underground Railroad is a very interesting concept. However, the story was very difficult to follow because you were constantly changing back and forth in time. Trying to maintain who was speaking in reference to what was confusing. It was just not as interesting as I'd hoped it would be.

32 of 45 people found this review helpful

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  • Carole B. Regan
  • Southern California
  • 2016-12-02

Should be recommended reading for all Americans

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes. First, the plot is extremely well thought through and carefully written. Second, the reader/s do a masterful job of varying voices so we know who's speaking. A very powerful book.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club)?

Each time Ridgeway recaptures Cora is memorable as we never seem to expect them to occur.

Which character – as performed by Bahni Turpin – was your favorite?

Well, Cora, of course, but Royal came second.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

No. i never listen to a book all at one setting. This one is too emotional for that.

Any additional comments?

Definitely deserved the National Book Award and the NYTimes' listing as one of the years ten best books.

11 of 16 people found this review helpful

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  • Nicole
  • 2017-06-01

Hard to follow in audio format

Any additional comments?

The story is fascinating and important, but there are aspects to the story that make it hard to follow in this format. It felt like there were opening quotes, or ads searching for missing slaves at the introduction of each chapter, which didn't translate well in audio. There is also quite a bit of reminiscing done by the characters which also became difficult to understand.I may go back and re-read this sometime because I feel like I kept missing parts. I would recommend the book, but I would recommend reading it as opposed to listening.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Money Sue
  • 2016-08-05

This book create a new sence of renowned purpose.

Created a new level of respect for those before my time. And provided new understanding.

17 of 27 people found this review helpful

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  • J.B.
  • 2016-08-06

Does Not Make the Grade

The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club) by Colson Whitehead, and read by Banhi Turpin. The novel, although with some qualities just does not do its job. A disappointment.

This is a potentially very well-conceived story. The account covers a history of a Georgian slave starting with her grandmother’s removal from Africa, to her abandonment by her mother, to slavery life in the South, and then mostly her efforts to escape, and her path in that journey. Does she escape? Is there even such a concept of escape to one who was previously enslaved? Well to find out you can read the book.

The story is excellent in portraying the horrific life of those enslaved. In fact, one could characterize the book as being a horror novel and it could put the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre series to shame for its dismemberment of the human condition. It teaches us the frailty of humankind particularly to each other and chiefly where we can distinguish between ourselves given an inconsequential factor such as skin tones. If you need to be more disgusted about one human owning another this book will provide a plethora of human on human repulsive acts.

The Underground Railroad, itself though, never enthralls the reader. It lumbers on and on and on like the overworked motor of an old refrigerator grumbling in an effort to keep its inners cool. The reader, Ms. Turpin, an iconic reader of black lives novels, is a dullard in this production. Thus, although the story has purpose and potential it never reaches the status of an engrossing tale. One must struggle to complete the book. (Toward the end the story does finally draw you into the plot but that is only about 30 minutes in over ten hours of not too involving literature.)

In addition there is not too much about the Underground Railroad. Yes, its existence is always here and we do learn of the courageous acts of some of its station masters, but there is not much more about its history or what caused its coming into existence or how it operated.

Oprah has had better picks, and although it is not a total waste of time I think there is better literature out there. Not a total flop, just not a whopper.

35 of 53 people found this review helpful

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  • Douglas E. Boone
  • Twin Cities
  • 2016-08-09

Good story, might be mistaken for history

Very good listen. I'm sure that a lot of horrors of slavery are accurate but there's also fantasy mixed in. It would be good to have a section where the author clarified which parts were researched history, which were based on history but alterred for dramatic affect, and which were just fantasy.

14 of 23 people found this review helpful