Imagine for a moment that the underground network of houses and passageways that allowed African-American slaves to escape into free states in the 19th century was, as its name implies, an actual underground railroad maintained by engineers and conductors; complete with a secret network of cars and tracks. This is the premise of Colson Whitehead’s award winning novel The Underground Railroad. At once a riveting story about what the human spirit will endure in pursuit of freedom and an important and relevant account of the history of our country, The Underground Railroad had me completely hooked from the beginning. When I have the opportunity to I like to read the book and listen to the audio in tandem. Fortunately I had that exact opportunity with The Underground Railroad and as a result I can recommend the audiobook as highly as the book. Often I find that one format is a better experience than the other but in the case of The Underground Railroad I found that they complimented each other really well.
The Underground Railroad was, in my opinion, excellently crafted. Where most novels emphasize either plot or character development Whitehead expertly balances both. The story follows Cora and Ceasar, both slaves on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Cora’s mother is the only slave to have successfully escaped from the plantation and this makes Cora an outcast among her peers. Her unwillingness to accept the social order among her fellow slaves doesn’t help much either. But Ceasar seems to think her mother’s escape makes Cora lucky and he asks her join him in his own attempt. They expect they will be hunted, in fact they plan on it. What they don’t plan on is the plantation owners hiring the most ruthless bounty hunter in the south- the same bounty hunter who was hired to catch Cora’s mother and has taken her escape as a personal offense so deep it has begun to cloud his every decision. I really enjoyed following Cora on her journey, her strength and determination to find and make the life she deserved were so inspiring. I was also pretty fascinated by Ridgeway, the bounty hunter. He has to be one of the most intriguing and well-written villains I’ve read.
I have to admit- as intrigued as I was by the premise of the novel I was a little intimidated when I had learned that it had won the 2016 National Book Award. I was hesitant to read it because I thought it might be too “literary” for me to understand. I was very wrong. The Underground Railroad is certainly very well written, the text sometimes reading like poetry, but it is very approachable and I definitely recommend it. While I don’t expect everyone to love it as much as I did I can’t really imagine how anyone could be disappointed. If you already read and enjoyed The Underground Railroad here are some suggestions from Novelist for what you might like to read next: