The Underground Railroad

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
The Underground Railroad Book Poster Image
Riveting, thought-provoking, brutal runaway slave story.

Parents say

age 15+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 14+
Based on 3 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some big liberties are taken with historical accuracy, such as making the Underground Railroad a literal railroad. The slave and runaway experiences 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 & Representations

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 runaway and other people she cares about after she escapes are brave, gallant, and considerate. The slave catcher and patrollers show how deep institutional cruelty runs. Some white people put themselves at risk to help the Underground Railroad.


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 returned runaway slave 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.


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.


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.

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.

What 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 slaves' 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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 10 and 12-year-old Written byJeanne W. May 16, 2021

Unflinching historical fantasy

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... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byjamesmiller July 16, 2018

Amazing, honest, unforgettable

The Underground Railroad is an incredible book about a runaway slave girl. It will truly impact any reader and make them reflect on the way slavery still affect... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byTayloram January 6, 2020

Good Book

It was good but a bit scattered and some section had no points. But the beginning was great.

What's the story?

When Cora is about 16 years old, she hears about THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD from Caesar, a slave 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 the scuffle with the slave catchers, one of whom Cora hit dies a few days later. Now Cora's not only a fugitive slave but also wanted for murder. Notorious slave tracker 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 runaway slave story is an eye-opening, brutal, and remarkable study of tensions that pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, his depictions of slave life 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 a slave'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

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history and stories of the African-American experience

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