The Underground Railroad is a book deserving of its hype. It is a sharp, clever novel that gives the Underground Railroad of US history—a network of routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape into free states—a physical form as a steam-powered escape that must stay secret. Cora is a slave on a plantation in Georgia, ostracised due to her mother’s disappearance from the plantation when Cora was ten. When a new slave, Caesar, tells Cora about the hope of escape on the Underground Railroad, her journey begins to find safety along the lines of the railroad, whilst being pursued by the slave catcher Ridgeway.
Whitehead’s conceit is simple, yet the transformation of the metaphorical railroad into a physical one feels momentous. It brings a sense of momentum and also gets across the idea of something beneath the ground, beneath both Southern states and those in the North, that is alive and working to help black people escape. Cora’s story is a compelling narrative of a desperation to keep escaping, even when those around her are not so lucky. By combining a character’s personal battle with a sense of larger scale—not only through the railroad, but also by describing other characters’ lives and looking into the future at times—the novel is both an engrossing and brutal read and a sharp look at not only slavery but race in America across the centuries. It is clear that many of Whitehead’s concise sentences are true now as they are to the time of the novel.
The Underground Railroad is an impressive combination of style, structure, narrative, and concept to produce a novel about slavery that is both devastating and fresh. Whitehead’s writing style, clever and direct, gives the book an immediacy that feels vital to reading it and thinking about the past, present, and future.