Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on August 2nd 2016
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In Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, an infamous passage from slavery to freedom exists beyond the metaphor as a network of train tracks and cars secretly connecting Southern states. Though her life was shaped by her mother’s escape, Cora first learns about the Underground Railroad from Caesar, who asks her to join him in heading north. Followed close behind by Ridgeway, a hired slave catcher, the novel follows Cora as she navigates her terrifying escape, along with the different lives she encounters along the way.
There’s a moment in the book where Cora notes the grandeur of South Carolina’s twelve story Griffin Building, which soars above the rest of the structures and holds one of the only elevators for hundreds of miles. It’s the moment I realized Whitehead’s novel tweaks more than just the metaphorical railroad, it also disrupts time in an endlessly fascinating way.
“At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindness.”
Though the novel never reads like fantasy, once the Underground Railroad is introduced, Whitehead bends the timeline and creates environments that blend the established plot with elements from different historical periods. Each of Cora’s stops acts as a sort of lens into the near future and a different way of seeing slavery’s impact down the line. It’s difficult to pin down without spoiling, but so subtle and masterfully done that it’s possible to miss, especially when gripped by Cora’s story.
This all adds up to a novel that can be viewed from endless angles with a deep cast of characters that contribute to the story in multiple ways. It’s no wonder The Underground Railroad is the newest pick for Oprah’s Book Club—it’s a brilliant novel just begging to be discussed.