The Underground Railroad

Winner, National Book Awards 2016 for Fiction

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, book jacket, 2016
ISBN 9780385542364
Doubleday/Penguin Random House
Colson Whitehead author photo, credit by Madeline Whitehead
Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is the New York Times bestselling author of The Noble Hustle, Zone OneSag HarborThe Intuitionist, John Henry DaysApex Hides the Hurt, and one collection of essays, The Colossus of New York. More about this author >

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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. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. 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 the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: 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.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Judges Citation

The Underground Railroad confirms Colson Whitehead’s reputation as one of our most daring and inventive writers. A suspenseful tale of escape and pursuit, it combines elements of fantasy and the counter-factual with an unflinching, painfully truthful depiction of American slavery. Whitehead revisits the grotesque barbarities of our nation’s history in the interest of our common stake in freedom and dignity. He has given us an electrifying narrative of the past, profoundly resonant with the present.

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2016 National Book Awards - Colson Whitehead (Full)


Bahni Turpin reads for Colson Whitehead at the 2016 National Book Awards Finalists Reading

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