Colson Whitehead‘s The Underground Railroad was already well on its way to classic (even super-stardom, bestseller) status — even before Oprah announced her latest Book club pick today. And, for good reason.
He’s a famous, a New York Times bestselling novelist, with an extensive repertoire of achievements, including 5 novels and 2 nonfiction books. He also received the MacArthur Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and Whiting Award. So, he’s one of those writers that we’re all following, expecting him to release the next great classic.
Even if his literary credentials weren’t so impressive, we’re fascinated by the subject matter of this novel. Yes, we know that the “Underground Railroad” is history — it was the secret way that Harriet Tubman and other “rebels” ferried slaves to freedom. Whitehead captures that sense of anticipatory danger, as he propels us through time. Compared with Gulliver’s Travels, we’re struck by the literary appeal.
According to Oprah, the book took her breath away. Her reaction is not really surprising, given the power of the tale — centering around a young female slave, born on a Georgia cotton plantation. Like Beloved and other examples from Oprah’s Book Club, the novel follows Cora’s tortured journey from slavery to freedom.
The book recounts the horrors of slavery, but Michiko Kakutani celebrates that way that Whitehead “memorializes the yearning for freedom that spurs one generation after another to persevere in the search for justice — despite threats and intimidation, despite reversals and efforts to turn back the clock. He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.”