A cursory peek into his backlist reveals that there is no such thing as a “typical” Colson Whitehead novel. Having tackled everything from post-apocalyptic zombie horror to jocular coming-of-age shenanigans in the Hamptons, this prizewinning author seems to have the philosophy that big risk equals big reward. So it should come as no surprise that The Underground Railroad, his sixth novel, is not only his most daring but also his very best—and most important—book to date. It’s also the latest selection of Oprah’s Book Club.
In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead dives into the past for the first time, transporting readers back to pre-Civil War America and the plantations of the South. We are introduced to Cora, a third-generation slave in Georgia who has never set foot off her master’s property and for whom the idea of fleeing is unthinkable—that is, until a fellow slave, Caesar, approaches her about hitching a ride on the rumored Underground Railroad to the North. With a ruthless slave catcher hot on their heels, they embark on a perilous journey through America in search of a freedom that feels increasingly elusive.
A sly reframing of Gulliver’s Travels within the traditional black slave narrative, The Underground Railroad is an arresting tale that puts Whitehead’s imagination and intelligence on full display. His inspired decision to have Cora adventure through the South by means of a literal subterranean locomotive suffuses the narrative with a fable-like quality, but Whitehead’s overall approach is far from whimsical. Throughout her journey, Cora is confronted with some of the most disgraceful facets of the period, from eugenics programs to the Fugitive Slave Act, and the narrative is frequently grim.
Whitehead exercises his artistic license, deviating from the historical record to create an augmented reality. But his skillful balancing of intellect and fact with emotion and highly nuanced storytelling only makes the meditation on the insidious values that allow prejudice and brutality to continue to flourish all the more indelible. Chilling in its timeliness, The Underground Railroad is a devastating literary masterpiece that should be considered required reading.