I had been looking forward to this one since well before its publication. I even had a little post-it note on my fridge reminding me of its imminent publication date, September 6th. Then, Colson Whitehead, about a month and a half before the scheduled release of this already much-anticipated novel, his sixth, received a generous blessing from our modern culture’s premier gatekeeper of literary success. Sometime in late July, in talks with Oprah Winfrey, Whitehead and his publisher agreed to move up the publication date and she agreed to sprinkle her fairy dust on the thing (in the form of that magical little decal), and, abracadabra, The Underground Railroad quickly became the best-selling new work of serious literary fiction of the year.
Though I’m speaking somewhat derisively of Oprah’s impact on the reading of literary fiction (and though I admit that, in spite of the fact that many folks only read certain books because this one particular cult of personality tell them to, she is undeniably getting a ton of people to read very good books that they otherwise wouldn’t), I don’t mean to be at all derisive of the sales—or praise—that Whitehead’s new book deserves. It’s a fabulous book.
It’s a remarkable—and remarkably harrowing and heartbreaking—tale of one particular slave and her quest for freedom from the cruel and wily clutches of Southern American chattel bondage. It’s a book I found very difficult to put down, turning from page to page with a kind of dark and foreboding suspense. I very very badly wanted Cora to make it. And I won’t spoil it for you here. I’ll just say that you really ought to read it.
One particular aspect I want to mention, though, is this wonderful trick that Whitehead plays in the novel. Though we all know that the underground railroad is a metaphor for the secretive network of abolitionists and heroes who shuttled escaped slaves from the south, bit by bit, under cover of darkness and at great peril, northward toward freedom. But Whitehead, in this novel, masterfully tells the story of Cora’s escape on a literal underground railroad, a functioning train line hidden in vast tunnels beneath the earth, with stations concealed beneath barns or other structures owned and operated by freedom-loving white folks known as “station agents.” What makes this literary move so smart, to my mind, is that he makes it with utter seriousness, so seriously in fact that, as I first encountered such a scene in the book, I almost, for a moment, wondered whether there had, in fact, in real history, ever been an actual underground train in the early 1800s that had been used to transport escaped slaves. It’s such a corny notion—thousands of miles of subway tunnels dug and track laid, all in utter secrecy—but Whitehead keeps such a straight face about it, so to speak, and it all works marvelously.
I’ll say no more. Read it promptly. It was just shortlisted for the National Book Award, and I’m quite sure that that’s merely the beginning of the acclaim it is bound to garner.