The Underground Railroad (novel)

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The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad (Whitehead novel).jpg
Author Colson Whitehead
Country United States
Language English
Subject Slavery
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date
August 2, 2016
Pages 320
ISBN 978-0-385-54236-4

The Underground Railroad is the sixth novel by American author Colson Whitehead.

The alternate history novel tells the story of Cora and Caesar, two slaves in the southeastern United States during the 1800s who make a bid for freedom from their Georgia plantations by following the Underground Railroad, which in the novel is an actual subway as opposed to a series of safe houses and secret routes.[1]

The Underground Railroad was a critical and commercial success, hitting the best seller lists and winning several notable prizes. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,[2] the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction,[1][3] the Arthur C. Clarke Award[4] and the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence.[5] It has been longlisted for The 2017 Man Booker Prize.


The story is told in the third person, focusing mainly on Cora. Scattered single chapters also focus on Cora's mother Mabel, the slavecatcher Ridgeway, a reluctant slave sympathizer named Ethel, and Cora's fellow slave Caesar.

Cora is a slave on a plantation in Georgia and an outcast after Mabel ran off without her. She harbors a great deal of resentment towards Mabel for escaping, although readers later learn that her mother actually died from a snake bite and never reached freedom. Caesar approaches Cora about a plan to flee. Reluctant at first, she eventually agrees as her situation with her master and fellow slaves worsens. During their escape, they encounter a group of slavecatchers, who capture Cora's young friend Lovey. Cora is forced to kill a teenage boy to protect herself and Caesar, eliminating any possibility of merciful treatment should she ever be recaptured. With the help of an inexperienced abolitionist, Cora and Caesar find the Underground Railroad, a subway system that runs throughout the south that transports runaways northwards. They take a train to South Carolina.

Upon learning of their escape, Ridgeway begins a hunt for the pair, largely in revenge for Mabel, who is the only escapee he has ever failed to capture. Meanwhile, Cora and Caesar have taken up comfortable residence in South Carolina under assumed names. South Carolina is enacting a program where the government owns former slaves but employs them, provides medical treatment, and gives them communal housing. The two enjoy their time there and put off the decision to leave until Cora learns of plans to sterilize black women and use black men as test subjects in an experiment to track the spread of syphilis. Ridgeway arrives before the two can leave, and Cora is forced to return to the Railroad alone. She later learns that Caesar is killed fighting with Ridgeway.

Cora eventually arrives in a closed-down station in North Carolina. She is found by the son of the station's former operator, Martin. North Carolina has recently decided to abolish slavery, using indentured servants instead, and violently executing any runaway slaves found in the state (as well as some freedmen). Martin, terrified of what the North Carolinians might do to an abolitionist, hides Cora in his attic for several months. Eventually, Cora becomes ill and is reluctantly treated by Martin's wife Ethel. While Cora is down from the attic, a raid is conducted on the house, and she is recaptured by Ridgeway.

Ridgeway takes Cora back toward Georgia, detouring through Tennessee to return another slave to his master. While stopped in Tennessee, Ridgeway's travelling party is attacked by some escaped slaves, who release Cora. Cora travels to a farm in Indiana owned by a free black man named Valentine, along with one of her rescuers, a man called Royal. The farm is populated by a number of freedmen and escapees, living and working in harmony. Royal, who is an operator on the Railroad, begins a romantic relationship with Cora, although she remains hesitant because of a rape by other slaves in her childhood. Unfortunately for the pair, a small faction of freedmen fears that their peaceful life will be ruined by the presence of escaped slaves, and tips off some slavecatchers to their presence. The farm is burned, and many slaves, including Royal, are killed in a raid by white Indianans. Ridgeway recaptures Cora and forces her to take him to a closed down Railroad station nearby. When they arrive, she pushes him down a flight of stairs, severely injuring him. She then runs off down the tracks. Eventually, she emerges from the underground tracks to find a caravan traveling out West. She is given a ride by one of the wagons' colored driver and the novel ends.[6]



The novel has received a number of awards, including the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction. The previous book to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book prizes was The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx, in 1993.[2]

The Underground Railroad was also awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature.[7]

When The Underground Railroad was published in the United States in August 2016, it was selected for Oprah's Book Club.[8]

Critical reception

The novel received positive reviews from critics.[9][10] Reviewers praised the novel for its commentary on both the past and present of the United States.[9][10]


It was announced in March 2017 that Amazon is making a limited drama series based on The Underground Railroad, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, who co-wrote and directed the Oscar-winning film Moonlight.[11]


  1. ^ a b "The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, 2016 National Book Award Winner, Fiction". National Book Foundation. Retrieved December 6, 2016. 
  2. ^ a b "2017 Pulitzer Prize Winners and Nominees". The Pulitzer Prizes. 2017. Retrieved April 10, 2017. 
  3. ^ Alter, Alexandra (November 17, 2016). "Colson Whitehead Wins National Book Award for 'The Underground Railroad'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 24, 2017. 
  4. ^ "Arthur C Clarke Winner Announced", Foyles, July 27, 2017.
  5. ^ French, Agatha. "American Library Assn.'s 2017 award winners include 'March: Book Three' by Rep. John Lewis". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 24, 2017. 
  6. ^ "The Underground Railroad (novel) Summary & Study Guide". Bookrags. Retrieved April 16, 2017. 
  7. ^ Page, Benedicte, "Whitehead shortlisted for Arthur C Clarke Award", The Bookseller, May 3, 2017.
  8. ^ Whitehead, Colson. "The Underground Railroad (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel". ISBN 9780385542364. Retrieved 2016-12-06. 
  9. ^ a b Kakutani, Michiko (August 2, 2016). "Review: 'Underground Railroad' Lays Bare Horrors of Slavery and Its Toxic Legacy". The New York Times. Retrieved April 14, 2017. 
  10. ^ a b Preston, Alex (October 9, 2016). "The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead review – luminous, furious and wildly inventive". The Guardian. Retrieved April 14, 2017. 
  11. ^ Kimberly Roots, "The Underground Railroad Series, From Moonlight Director, Greenlit at Amazon", TVLine, March 27, 2017.
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