“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.”
My Thoughts: Novels generate buzz for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it is due to a fantastic marketing team. Other times, it garners word-of-mouth attention. Yet other times, a book is lucky to capture the attention of an influential celebrity. Then there is a book like The Underground Railroad, which has been lucky enough to benefit from all three.
The funny thing about buzz is that it does not always mean a book is good. We can all list many examples of books that generated a lot of buzz but ended up being a disappointment when we finally read it. What makes The Underground Railroad is that it is entirely deserving of every word of praise it is currently generating. It is a novel that will make you sad and angry; it will terrify you and make you think. It is one of the rare novels that not only lives up to the hype, it actually manages to beat your expectations.
In The Underground Railroad, Mr. Whitehead creates a novel that is supremely timely and vital to understanding our present racial tensions by reminding us about our past. Through Cora, readers experience the fear, misery, and daily degradations of life as slave in the South. His reimaginings of each state are equal parts fantasy of what could have been and warning of could be should ongoing racial tensions escalate onto the political front. Mr. Whitehead’s writing is powerful and just about perfect, making an unforgettable story for the ages.