A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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.
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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?
Themes & Topics
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For kids who love history and stories of the African-American experience
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