New York Times Review

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 Underground Railroad,” the latest selection of Oprah Winfrey’s book club, 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.

In North Carolina, slave patrollers “required no reason to stop a person apart from color,” Mr. Whitehead writes. Defending the need for night riders, one senator tells an angry mob that their “Southern heritage lay defenseless and imperiled” from the “colored miscreants” who lurked in the dark, threatening “to violate the citizens’ wives and daughters.”

Such passages resonate today: the police killings of unarmed black men and boys, the stop-and-frisk policies that often target minorities, and the anti-immigrant language used by politicians to ramp up prejudice and fear. Mr. Whitehead does not italicize such parallels. He does not need to. The harrowing tale he tells here is the back story to the injustices African-Americans and immigrants continue to suffer, but a back story only in the sense, as Faulkner put it, that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

NPR Fresh Air Interview with Colson Whitehead on Underground Railroad

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