Published August 2016 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley
Publisher's Summary (abridged):
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. . 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 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.
Publisher's walk a fine line - too little and readers won't have an interest, too much and they've lessened the reader's experience. You'll notice that I've abridged the publisher's summary. You can hardly have avoided hearing a lot about this book at this point. But, if you're lucky, you've managed to block out some of the specifics. You'll go into this book with only the bare bones of the story as a starting point. Because both the reader and the book deserve it.
"Truth was a changing display in a window, manipulated by hands when you weren't looking, alluring and ever out of reach. The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others."Colson Whitehead plays both fast and free with the facts and slams them right in the reader's face.
In the pre-Civil War years, Whitehead imagines the underground railroad as an actual underground railroad. Riders never know when they board where they might end up, nor what they will find there. It is not the only creative risk he takes, imagining what might have been in Southern states as Cora's flight takes her north from Georgia.
But The Underground Railroad is no flight of fancy. It is brutal and horrifying and unrelenting. Whitehead will not allow readers to turn away from the realities and consequences of slavery. And he will not allow white man to forget what their people have done.
"...created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn't understand d it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib."The Underground Railroad is at once a book you can hardly stand to keep reading yet cannot put down. It is the rare book that more than lives up to the hype that has swirled around it.
"This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are."