Cora is a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation, as was her mother, as was her grandmother. When Cora was a small child, her mother escaped. Several years later, Cora and her friend Caesar manage the same feat.
The real Underground Railroad was a loose network of safe houses and abolitionists that helped runaway slaves over the border to freedom in Canada. Whitehead has made it into an actual railroad, with steam trains pulling box cars deep beneath the earth. Cora travels through several different US states as she tries to put space between her and the plantation. She expands throughout the journey, from a shrinking girl, keen not to show too much emotion, to a thoughtful, somewhat cynical woman.
The train makes The Underground Railroad dream-like, almost magical, in places. The seeming safety of South Carolina, with clean streets and new skyscrapers, hides a dark, dystopian secret. Tennessee is a desolate land of ash, ravaged by wildfires. Whitehead’s switches between realism and the fable-like give the book a lot of its force and colour, although it can occasionally be difficult to pick out which horrors are invented and which are real and based on research.
Overall this is a stunning, brutal and hugely imaginative book. It’s a favourite of both Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. It is painful history reimagined in a powerful and brilliant way.