Colson Whitehead is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, the 2016 National Book Award, and named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, as well as The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and The Colossus of New York. He is also a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of the MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. He lives in New York City.
In his dynamic new novel, Colson Whitehead takes the Underground Railroad — the loosely interlocking network of black and white activists who helped slaves escape to freedom in the decades before the Civil War — and turns it from a metaphor into an actual train that ferries fugitives northward.
The result is a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery. It possesses the chilling, matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and with brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift.
The book chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, risking everything in pursuit of freedom, much the way her mother, Mabel, did years before. Cora and her friend Caesar are pursued by a fanatical, Javert-like slave catcher named Ridgeway, whose failure to find Mabel has made him all the more determined to hunt down her daughter and destroy the abolitionist network that has aided her.
Traveling from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana, Cora must try to elude not just Ridgeway, but also other bounty hunters, informers and lynch mobs — with help, along the way, from a few dedicated “railroad” workers, both black and white, willing to risk their lives to save hers.
Although the basic escape narrative will remind some readers of the WGN America television series “Underground” (about a group of slaves fleeing a Georgia plantation), this novel jumps around in time and space, lending Cora’s story a fractured, modernist feel and reminding the reader of the inventive storytelling in such earlier Whitehead novels as “The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days.”
In “Underground Railroad,” there’s a kind of prologue that recounts the story of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, who was kidnapped in Africa, sold into slavery and repeatedly swapped and resold in America; and Cora’s story is intercut with interludes featuring portraits of other characters, like Ridgeway and Caesar.