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Oprah Picks Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad"

Amazon Book Review: The Underground Railroad"This book has kept me up at night, had my heart in my throat, almost afraid to turn the next page... Get it." --Oprah Winfrey on The Underground Railroad

This morning, Oprah announced Colson Whitehead's novel of a runaway slave and her journey through African American history as the latest selection for her popular book club. It's a deserving choice, a brilliant book.

The tale is Cora's, a slave consigned to a Georgia cotton plantation. Orphaned when her mother ran off years before, she has struggled alone to stake out her own territory, psychic and physical, within the misery of slavery and the often cruel whims of its subjugated society. She fiercely, sometimes violently, defends the one thing she can call her own--a tiny garden patch inherited when her mother fled--while earning herself an exile to the Hob, a shack designated for outcasts by the slaves themselves. The worst of every world.

Cora is approached by the charismatic Caesar, who has made contact with an agent of the fabled Underground Railroad. He urges her to escape with him; initially she demurs, but when their circumstances turn suddenly from merely horrific to the unspeakable, they flee through the swamp at the edge of the cotton fields, into darkness and complete uncertainty.

If Whitehead's depiction of the cotton plantation is terrifying and true--and his research ran deep, including many first-person accounts--it's an ingenious device that unlocks the rest of the story: In this world, the Underground Railroad is literal, a crude and dangerous subway that delivers escaped slaves north via a network of tunnels, subterranean platforms, and station masters. In this tweaked reality, Whitehead uses his self-granted freedom to create and explore--along with his characters--his own version of antebellum America and the span of black experience. If a bit of magic realism gives you pause (and it often does for me), don't be put off: as Whitehead explains in his interview with the Amazon Book Review below, he kept the story realistic by setting the level of invention "on one, as opposed to ... a Spinal Tap-ian 11." Also importantly, Whitehead doesn't forget that The Underground Railroad is a novel. As he moves his characters through often surreal geographies and events, they are relentlessly pursued by Ridgeway, a savage slave catcher bent on returning Cora to Georgia and a certain, grisly fate. It's a masterful blend of plot and ideas.

This isn't Whitehead's first go-round. Among others, his bibliography includes a "thinking person's" zombie novel, a 1980s fish-out-of-water Bildungsroman, and a funny, personal account of the World Series of Poker. Also the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" grant, Whitehead is a writer who deserves to be widely read and appreciated.

Learn more about The Underground Railroad and Oprah's Book Club ® and watch our own interview with Whitehead from Book Expo America 2016 in Chicago.




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