The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Study Guide

Published in 2016 by award-winning American author, Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad is a gripping account of a runaway slave, Cora, as she makes her way through a fictionalized American landscape. Throughout her journey to freedom, Cora and the other characters reflect on the character and workings of America: its promise of freedom and its bloody allegiance to profit and expansion. Seamlessly navigating the genres of historical fiction, magical realism, and speculative fantasy, it is both a poignant, touching saga of one woman's perseverance in her quest for freedom, and an incisive commentary on the history and present-day contradictions of America.

The subject of the Underground Railroad itself has experienced a resurgence in American literary and media culture in the recent decade. In 2016, the year Whitehead's novel was published, the U.S. Treasury announced Harriet Tubman would be depicted on a new twenty-dollar bill; in 2013, the movie 12 Years a Slave made a splash; and in 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in Cincinnati, Ohio, to commemorate and educate the public on the histories of those who worked and escape through the Underground Railroad. These are just a few examples of contemporary cultural salience of the experience of slavery and those who resisted it. It is in this context that The Underground Railroad was received with almost universal high praise. It earned Colson Whitehead numerous literary accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Carnegie Medal for Fiction. It was a #1 New York Times Bestseller and was selected for Oprah's Book Club.

Critics have also noted the book's scathing commentary on the effects of slavery that still echo in America today. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times writes that The Underground Railroad explores the "toxic legacy" of slavery, identifiable in contemporary policies such as stop-and-frisk and the pervasiveness of police brutality. For these connections the book draws, Juan Gabriel Vásquez calls it a "brave and necessary" book.