The Underground Railroad -Reader’s Guide

“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.

The Underground Railroad
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“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.” (Amazon summary).

Chapter 1: Ajarry

  • What fears would slaves have about running north?
  • What would they have thought about the ocean the first time they saw it?
  • How did her vision of their family living better bring Ajarry hope?
  • How did the price of the slaves equate worth?
  • How does value determine possibilities? How does Ajarry learn the value and rankings of items?
  • How does Ajarry’s willingness to learn compare to Viktor Frankl’s experience in the concentration camp?
  • How did Ajarry’s ability to learn and adapt keep her alive to die of natural causes?

Chapter 2: Georgia

  • How did keeping slaves from celebrating birthdays limit their humanity?
  • How is an individual uncomplicated?
  • Why would slaves fight over the space between the cabins which did not belong to them?
  • Why would their minds refuse to acknowledge some of the monstrosities endured by slaves?
  • Why did Cora fight so hard for her parcel of land? Food? Heritage? To own something?
  • How did singing change their lives?
  • How does Cora’s back story solidify her character?
  • Why would Caesar find Cora to be good luck in his escape plans?
  • Would there be a strategic event for slaves to go to the Hob?
  • How similar or dissimilar are the politics and classes to the slaves to the white man?
  • How would Mabel’s escape be inspiring to Cora?
  • How did the punishments of the slaves compare and contrast to Roman spectacles?
  • How does terror motivate Cora?
  • In what ways would the idea of escape overwhelm Cora?
  • Why would the underground railroad not operate further south? What would be the increased risks?
  • What desperation would grip the runaway slaves at their capture?
  • What do you think of Cora’s lack of regret over killing one of her captors?
  • How would the chains found in the barn terrify a runaway slave?
  • What did Cora think of the compassion of the white man?

Chapter 3: Ridgeway

  • How does family legacy mold an individual?
  • What forces were aligned against the black man in South Carolina?
  • How did tracking runaway slaves attract would-be criminals?
  • How does the lure of status even impact the slave catchers?
  • What did Ridgeway’s notoriety mean to him?

Chapter 4: South Carolina

  • How does Anderson’s life contrast to Cora’s?
  • Why does the author use foreshadowing? Does it change the anticipation of the story?
  • Why would plantation owners what to obliterate their slaves’ African/tribal languages?
  • What personal risk did Cora take by trying to find her mother?
  • How would currency be similar to the trading on slave row?
  • What would be the benefits to leave South Carolina? The drawbacks?
  • How would Cora’s ghosts attack her?
  • What do you think Cora made of museum when she first saw it?
  • How did a job for Cora compare to slavery?
  • What was the purpose of sterilization?
  • What kinds of chains do people wear?
  • How did slave owners justify their works with the Declaration of Independence?
  • How did the continued segregation in South Carolina reinforce the status of the black race?
  • How do the experiments by Dr. Bertram compare to experiences conducted during the holocaust?
  • What ghosts would be re-lived when Cora worked the plantation scene?
  • How did Cora take back some power by looking visitors in the eye?
  • How does uncertainty build despair and anxiety?

Chapter 5: Stevens

  • How is the cost of higher education different today than during this period?
  • How do words and titles become part of racial prejudice?
  • What is the irony of the black man becoming an equal only in death?

Chapter 6: North Carolina

  • How did the term stray become as poignant as slave?
  • How would the loneliness accentuate her desperate flight?
  • How did Cora feel being assisted like a lady by Martin Wells?
  • What is the irony of freedom trail?
  • What comparison, if any, exist between Cora ensconced in the attic and Anne Frank?
  • What impact of the monochromatic society did this have on Cora?
  • How are the night riders similar to Nazis, KKK or a militia state?
  • How did the witnessed festivities change Cora’s impression of the park?
  • Compare and contrast Friday Festival to the Roman exhibitions.
  • Did Cora’s hallucinations of her mother, Mabel, bring her closure? Respite?
  • “Fear drove these people even more than cotton money” (p172). Which would be more motivating? Fear or money? Why?
  • What is freedom? Is Cora truly live free in the nook?
  • Ridgeway reassured Cora, “You don’t have to be afraid, Cora. You’re going home” (p187). What would be more fearful for Cora – the present situation or going home?

Chapter 7: Ethel

  • How did the definition and understanding of slave change from state to state and household to household?
  • How did white men justify sexual relations with the slaves despite their prejudices?
  • In what ways did Cora bring Ethel’s life full circle?

Chapter 8: Tennessee

  • Why would Cora be interested in listening to stories and getting her captors to talk?
  • Boseman blamed the fire on God’s anger while Ridgeway excused it as an accident. What caused each of these slave hunters to come to differing excuses?
  • How can money degrade individuals and families?
  • Why would Jasper continue in hymns and praise?
  • What symbolism lies in the black Tennessee myths?
  • Is there a just portion of troubles?
  • What irony is there that Ridgeway was more disposed to help a stranger on the road than to help Cora whose life story he knew?
  • In what ways had South Carolina stayed in the same and changed?
  • Why does Ridgeway use the pronoun ‘it’?
  • What truths are there to Ridgeway’s comments to Cora while in Tennessee (pp222-223)?
  • How did kicking make Cora feel liberated and justified?

Chapter 9: Caesar

  • In what ways was Caesar not like the other slaves on Randall’s plantation? The same?
  • How had slavery and the Randall plantation ‘undone’ the man?
  • How did reading separate Caesar from the other slaves?

Chapter 10: Indiana

  • What did reading mean to Cora?
  • Why would Georgia correct Cora’s terminology?
  • Why would Sybil encourage Cora to complete an unfinished project?
  • Why does Cora -as full of hate for her mother -continue to search for her mother?
  • What motivation did Valentine have to harbor so many escaped slaves?
  • How do poetry and prayer put ideas into peoples’ heads?
  • What is it like to be the first person to open a book?
  • How did Lander’s intelligence cut through social norms such as race?
  • How are all people branded? What brands them?
  • How do free blacks walk differently than slaves?
  • Why or why not would you agree with Cora’s decision to stay in Indiana?
  • How does Randall’s death solidify Cora’s fate?
  • How does work unite people?
  • How was reading dangerous?
  • What is the Fugitive Slave Law?
  • Why would Mingo betray them?
  • What does it say about Valentine’s character to allow and encourage different points of view?
  • How is Valentine’s farm a delusion?
  • What promoted the attack on the gathering?

Chapter 11: Mabel

  • How did authority make Moses a tyrant?
  • Did Grayson’s demise add to Mabel’s desire to flee? Why? Why not?
  • Would Mabel’s story change Cora’s determination to flee if she knew the truth? Why? Why not?

Chapter 12: The North

  • What regrets did Cora maintain?
  • In what ways did Mabel escape?
  • What do you find in the true face of America?
  • What caused Cora to choose her escort?

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

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