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The Underground Railroad cover

The Underground Railroad

When a book is recommended by the former president of the United States of America, you know it’s a winner. Barack Obama described Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad with one word (“Terrific”), and I wholeheartedly agree with this endorsement.

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, an African American slave at a Georgia plantation in the antebellum South. When a fellow slave tells her about the underground railroad, she finds the courage to run for her freedom. Thus begins her odyssey as a runaway slave, where her adventures introduce her to unprecedented horrors and lead her to disheartening realisations.

The core metaphor of The Underground Railroad is very powerful. On one level it signals early in the novel that this story is not meant to be taken literally, which allowed a lively revisionist history to bloom as the chapters progress. On another level, the railroad feels like so much more than a metaphor. To imagine a real railroad dug by African American hands and kept secret from their white enslavers is a slap-in-the-face reminder of the extraordinary accomplishments of African American slaves. By making this impossible railroad real, Whitehead forces readers to acknowledge just how unbelievable and extraordinary the true history of African American resistance really is.

While this was a tough read, it was also an incredibly worthy one. Whitehead deserved the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.