The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A Novel

86%

47 Critic Reviews

The result is a story at once fabulist and searingly precise, driven by a deadpan voice that manages to do equal literary justice to the suspense of the plot, the author’s version of historical truth and the emotions evoked by its protagonist, the young runaway slave Cora.
-WSJ online

Synopsis

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
     In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
     Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
 

About Colson Whitehead

See more books from this Author
COLSON WHITEHEAD is the author of the national best seller Sag Harbor and the novels The Intui tionist, John Henry Days, and Apex Hides the Hurt, as well as The Colossus of New York, a collection of essays. A recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.
 
Published August 2, 2016 by Anchor. 322 pages
Genres: History, Literature & Fiction, Biographies & Memoirs, Education & Reference. Fiction
Bestseller Status:
icon3
Peak Rank on Sep 11 2016
icon20
Weeks as Bestseller
Add Critic Review

Critic reviews for The Underground Railroad
All: 47 | Positive: 45 | Negative: 2

Kirkus

Excellent
on Apr 13 2016

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from Kirkus

Publishers Weekly

Excellent
on Aug 25 2016

The story is literature at its finest and history at its most barbaric. Would that this novel were required reading for every American citizen.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from Publishers Weekly

NY Times

Good
Reviewed by Juan Gabriel Vásquez on Aug 05 2016

In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from NY Times

NY Times

Good
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani on Aug 03 2016

One of the remarkable things about this novel is how Mr. Whitehead found an elastic voice that accommodates both brute realism and fablelike allegory, the plain-spoken and the poetic...

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from NY Times

NPR

Excellent
Reviewed by Michael Schaub on Aug 09 2016

The Underground Railroad is an American masterpiece, as much a searing document of a cruel history as a uniquely brilliant work of fiction.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from NPR

Star Tribune

Good
Reviewed by Dylan Hicks on Aug 03 2016

Much of Whitehead’s earlier work is marked by elaborate riffs, ironic wit, and clever wordplay. Some of that remains — though harrowing, the book is by no means uniformly somber — but the prose is restrained, the tone and diction modern but peppered with enough formal or antiquated words to evoke the period.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from Star Tribune

NY Times

Good
Reviewed by Juan Gabriel Vásquez on Aug 05 2016

In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from NY Times

NY Times

Good
Reviewed by MICHIKO KAKUTANI on Aug 02 2016

In recounting Cora’s story, Mr. Whitehead communicates the horrors of slavery and its toxic legacy rumbling on down the years. At the same time, he memorializes the yearning for freedom that spurs one generation after another to persevere in the search for justice...

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from NY Times

LA Times

Good
Reviewed by Rebecca Carroll on Aug 26 2016

If I can hardly bear to read it, it would be arrogant to think that I have any real sense of what it might actually feel like to experience it.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from LA Times

Globe and Mail

Good
Reviewed by Andray Domise on Aug 12 2016

At a time when television commentators are angered by Michelle Obama making the true claim that the White House was built by slaves and when a children’s book published in 2016 features smiling slaves baking a cake for George Washington, The Underground Railroad is a necessary read.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from Globe and Mail

Entertainment Weekly

Good
Reviewed by Leah Greenblatt on Aug 02 2016

While supporting players come and go, Cora remains at the center of it all yet just out of reach—less the heroine of her own story than a witness to outrageous, extraordinary history.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Christian Science Monitor

Above average
Reviewed by Nick Romeo on Aug 09 2016

The points made are powerful and true, but the novel sometimes suffers from a didactic impulse that restates explicitly what is already clear. Despite these flaws, the book offers many testaments to Whitehead’s considerable talents...

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Booklist Online

Excellent
Reviewed by Donna Seaman on Aug 25 2016

Hard-driving, laser-sharp, artistically superlative, and deeply compassionate, Whitehead’s unforgettable odyssey adds a clarion new facet to the literature of racial tyranny and liberation.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

20Something Reads

Excellent
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on Aug 18 2016

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is literature at its finest. It will make readers think, and scenes portrayed on its pages will remain with them long after they have finished the book. Simply put, it should be read by all.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

USA Today

Good
Reviewed by Charles Finch on Aug 02 2016

In The Underground Railroad he seems raw at last. The result is one of the finest novels written about our country’s still unabsolved original sin.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Denver Post

Good
Reviewed by THE WASHINGTON POST on Aug 14 2016

Cora is such a sympathetic character and her survival is so constantly threatened that the story charges along with incredible power.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Tampa Bay Times

Good
Reviewed by Colette Bancroft on Aug 25 2016

Whitehead's style in The Underground Railroad — cool, almost detached, clinical in its detail with no wasted motion — contrasts and hence intensifies the book's harrowing story.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

The Sydney Morning Herald

Good
Reviewed by Jennifer Levasseur on Sep 29 2016

The slave narrative, in all of its incarnations, remains one of the most important American art forms. In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead paints its full measure while enlarging its scope in the country's most devastating and lasting offence.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

The Columbus Dispatch

Good
Reviewed by Nancy Gilson on Sep 13 2016

Whitehead’s novel — which follows his completely different works such as “Sag Harbor” and “Zone One” — is relentless in its depiction of cruelty and its disturbing consideration of America’s most shameful history.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Newsday

Good
Reviewed by Gene Seymour on Aug 03 2016

Whitehead’s masterwork summons terrors and insights palpable enough to be recognized in our present-day world as in the alternate universe where this book takes place.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

The National

Good
Reviewed by Ben East on Nov 14 2016

In a nutshell, this is why The Underground Railroad feels like required reading at this moment in time. It might be an excoriating examination of the brutal urges that have always driven America, but it is also a fugitive thriller, an adventure story, even a fantasy.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

People

Good
Reviewed by HELEN ROGAN on Aug 02 2016

...an extraordinary new take...That's the conceit of The Underground Railroad, an electrifying novel...

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Journal Sentinel

Good
Reviewed by Jim Higgins on Aug 29 2016

Whitehead's book is a novel, not an op-ed. But I can't help feeling that it also communicates a message for today: The Underground Railroad is still under construction. Keep swinging your pickax.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Daily Kos

Excellent
Reviewed by Reeces Pieces on Nov 28 2016

Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is the struggle for human dignity, the struggle for social justice; we are all part of that struggle on the Underground Railroad. I strongly recommend the book.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Library Journal

Excellent
Reviewed by BARBARA HOFFERT on Jul 18 2016

...Whitehead continues ratcheting up both imagery and tension. VERDICT A highly recommended work that raises the bar for fiction addressing slavery.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Irish Times

Excellent
Reviewed by EILEEN BATTERSBY on Oct 01 2016

History and human experience as well as an artist’s obligation to tell the truth have shaped a virtuoso novel that should be read by every American as well as readers across the world. And it will be, it should be.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

London Review of Books

Good
Reviewed by Thomas Chatterton Williams on Nov 17 2016

That the most important and acclaimed American novel of the past year, by one of the most talented, protean and iconoclastic American writers of any ethnic group or socioeconomic background is, in effect, an accomplished concession to the mandates of wokeness is notable in the extreme.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

National Review Online

Above average
Reviewed by Jay Nordlinger on Apr 25 2017

Whitehead’s book is most successful when it tells its story. It is least successful, I think, when it teaches and preaches — like a social-studies teacher, being sure that you recognize America’s massive sins.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

New Statesman

Good
Reviewed by Randy Boyagoda on Dec 05 2016

...the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

The Australian

Good
Reviewed by Don Anderson on Aug 20 2016

This is a brutal book, a violent book, a harrowing book. How could it not be, given the history it traces? By some irony it appears in the same month as a new television series of Alex Haley’s Roots, and a few months after the TV series The People v OJ Simpson.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

The Spectator

Good
Reviewed by David Patrikarakos on Nov 01 2016

Whitehead describes the transactional horrors of his subject levelly: the monetisation of the human body, and its subsequent industrialisation on the cotton farms of hell. His gaze takes everything in with neither judgment nor sentiment: his flowing and superb writing, meanwhile, instils both in the reader.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Huffington Post

Good
Reviewed by Robert Bradley on Sep 22 2016

Normally when this happens in stories I struggle to keep track, but due to his mastery at physic focus, Whitehead keeps you engaged the entire time...

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

The Missoulian

Excellent
Reviewed by Connie Ogle on Aug 21 2016

...a book like “The Underground Railroad” – a masterpiece, let’s just say it – can put our tattered, ugly past in perspective and maybe help us forge some kind of better future.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Red Online

Excellent
Reviewed by Sarra Manning on Oct 06 2016

Without a doubt, The Underground Railroad is an instant, modern classic, a To Kill A Mockingbird for this generation.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

WSJ online

Good
Reviewed by John Burnham Schwartz on Aug 08 2016

The result is a story at once fabulist and searingly precise, driven by a deadpan voice that manages to do equal literary justice to the suspense of the plot, the author’s version of historical truth and the emotions evoked by its protagonist, the young runaway slave Cora.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from WSJ online

The Christian Century

Good
Reviewed by Philip Christman on Sep 26 2016

The efficiency of the language isn’t merely a technical achievement: it speaks to Whitehead’s thorough immersion in his research, his mastery of a hundred facts in search of the one that will make a scene come alive.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

The Root

Good
Reviewed by HOPE WABUKE on Oct 08 2016

The desire to have some agency—no matter how little—over one’s own body, one’s own life. The constant fear and constant violence. The layers of institutional racial violence, both in the North and South. The struggle to truly find safety and to be free. A haunting, powerful and necessary read.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Guardian

Good
Reviewed by Cynthia Bond on Nov 09 2016

In a masterful stroke reminiscent of the black American artist Alison Saar, the metaphorical Underground Railroad of history – whereby slaves were transported under cover of night from one safe house to the next, bound for free land – is replaced by an actual train, the stations hewn by mysterious hands.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from Guardian

Guardian

Excellent
Reviewed by Alex Preston on Oct 09 2016

I haven’t been as simultaneously moved and entertained by a book for many years. This is a luminous, furious, wildly inventive tale that not only shines a bright light on one of the darkest periods of history, but also opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from Guardian

National Post arts

Good
Reviewed by Porscha Burke on Aug 18 2016

The timing couldn’t be more apt. Although anchored in a 19th-century landscape where black bodies hang publicly from trees as warnings to any slaves considering escape, the violence of The Underground Railroad reeks with 21st-century resonance.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from National Post arts

Financial Times

Good
Reviewed by Ian McGuire on Oct 21 2016

What we take away from The Underground Railroad is a sense that American racism is pervasive, fluid and persistent. If these ideas don’t always seem new, that should probably be taken as a sobering reminder of the stubbornness of the problems themselves...

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from Financial Times

https://bookpage.com

Good
Reviewed by Stephenie Harrison on Aug 25 2016

Chilling in its timeliness, The Underground Railroad is a devastating literary masterpiece that should be considered required reading.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Globe and Mail

Excellent
Reviewed by Andray Domise on Aug 12 2016

He collects long-shattered myths and reshapes the shards into a mosaic of the country's original sins. Though this novel is fiction, it is also one of the truest works ever produced in the genre.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N... | See more reviews from Globe and Mail

https://www.bostonglobe.com

Excellent
Reviewed by Anthony Domestico on Aug 04 2016

Lovely and rare, dark and imaginative, “The Underground Railroad’’ is Whitehead’s best work and an important American novel.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org

Below average
Reviewed by Betsy Childs Howard on Mar 22 2017

One thing I appreciated about Whitehead’s portrayal of human nature is that the evil in the book isn’t limited to slavery itself...

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

http://www.leoweekly.com

Excellent
Reviewed by T.E. LYONS on Nov 30 2016

It’s a bibliophile’s dose of pure excitement to watch the continuing arc of Whitehead’s career and wonder if there’s anything he can’t do.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

https://emergingcivilwar.com

Above average
Reviewed by Chris Mackowski on Oct 06 2016

In his unflinching new novel, The Underground Railroad, Whitehead makes the metaphor literal—and literary.

Read Full Review of The Underground Railroad: A N...

Reader Rating for The Underground Railroad
80%

An aggregated and normalized score based on 3335 user ratings from iDreamBooks & iTunes


Rate this book!

Add Review
×