Twenty years ago, Oprah Winfrey launched a new feature of her legendary television show: Oprah’s Book Club, starting with inaugural pick The Deep End of the Ocean. Over the next 15 years, Oprah’s Book Club had an astonishing effect on book publishing and the careers of the writers she chose. The club encouraged Oprah’s viewers to read more, read more difficult books, and then come together to discuss them. When Oprah anoints a new book as a must-read, we listen. And today, Colson Whitehead’s fascinating work of historical fiction, The Underground Railroad, has become her latest Book Club selection.
Whitehead is a lifelong New Yorker, born in Manhattan, a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, and the bestselling author of six novels and many works of nonfiction. Whitehead is a master of blending genres and styles, introducing gritty noir combined with fanciful sci-fi elements, tackling issues of race, culture, and societal rot with an almost Pynchonesque energy and unpredictability. His work is equal parts intellectual challenge and pure entertainment, offering a lively humor that makes even his most challenging and original concepts a lot of fun to read about.
The Underground Railroad
Whitehead brings his sense of the absurd in the service of truth to his newest novel. In The Underground Railroad, Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation, living a miserable, hellish existence. In Whitehead’s version of history, however, the Underground Railroad Cora hears about and escapes to isn’t a metaphor for a series of safe havens and secret pathways to the North—it’s a literal railroad underground, a belching steam engine that pulls a creaking boxcar along steel tracks. Cora and a fellow slave, the educated Caesar, climb aboard and begin a horrifying adventure that’s easy to compare to classics of the imagination such as Gulliver’s Travels, but with a modern sense of dark humor and horror that makes their adventures much more than the increasingly surreal sum of their parts.
The Horrors of Slavery
Whitehead is one of the few modern authors who has the tools to tell a story like this—simultaneously a harrowing story of slavery and one woman’s fierce determination to escape it, and an exercise of imagination that sees Cora discovering an antebellum southern city that can’t possibly have existed, complete with soaring skyscrapers and a tolerant attitude towards blacks that makes it seem like an ideal place to escape to (until an even more sinister reality is discovered). Cora’s travels on the underground railroad lead her into increasing dangers, but also keep her one step ahead of the slave-catcher Ridgeway, who justifies his relentless pursuit with an increasingly elaborate series of rationales for his career and livelihood. Driven ever onward, Cora encounters people and places that slowly tighten the sense of tension and terror—the book turns into one of the most gripping and terrifying stories of slavery and its evils you will ever read, not in spite of the more fanciful aspects of the story but because of them.
A Modern Classic
The Underground Railroad is one of those books in which a masterful writer comes into complete control of his talents at precisely the right moment to produce a book perfectly suited to its time. As we continue as a nation and a people to struggle with the ugly legacy of slavery, the ongoing battle with systemic racism, and a surge of violence in our society that seems never-ending and unstoppable, Whitehead’s new novel examines the roots of all of these problems in a way that feels electrifyingly new and smart. Once again Oprah has proved she has her finger on the literary pulse; she has chosen a book that everyone should read.