Colson Whitehead’s newest novel seeks to answer one question: what if the Underground Railroad were an actual railroad? This is, unfortunately, where the fantasy ends and the cruel truth of our country’s past sets in. Cora is a young woman who grew up in slavery on a Georgia plantation. When she was a child, her mother escaped, leaving Cora bitter and orphaned and later an outcast. When another slave, Caesar, approaches her with a plan to escape, at first she refuses, but eventually the two set out for freedom together, taking an underground steam train to northern states. Though the planation is behind them, other horrors await as each state is like its own world, not to mention a famous slave catcher is hot on their trail.
The Underground Railroad is by no means an easy read, but it is a rewarding one. Whitehead makes the journey personal through Cora and the people she meets along the way, and his narrative style is unmatched. Additionally, Bahni Turpin’s excellent narration really brings everything into focus. By the end, it will be clear to see why this book has won so many awards and distinctions, including the National Book Award.