#5 in our new regular feature that offers up staff-selected recommendations for your consideration.
Colson Whitehead has been getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so, for his latest novel, Underground Railroad. In this Oprah’s Book Club Selection, 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.
So, yes, read that great book, but also consider Ben H. Winter’s chilling new thriller that offers a brilliant and completely different take on the same difficult landscape by daring to mix slavery and science fiction, Underground Airlines.
In this chilling new thriller, a bounty hunter named Victor tracks fugitives for the United States Marshals Service. But his mission, like his past, is complicated: The people he’s chasing are escaped slaves. Their main crime is rejecting a life of forced servitude. And Victor himself was once one of them.
The novel is both creatively and professionally risky as it tackles the thorny subject of racial injustice in America. It takes place in a contemporary United States where the Civil War never happened, and slavery remains legal in four states, and it’s narrated by a former slave who has paid a steep moral price for his freedom. “I had reservations every day, up to the present day, because the subject is so fraught, and rightfully so,” Mr. Winters said. “It isn’t as if this is ancient history in this country.”
Both books come highly recommended, deepening the impact and adding layers of complexity to one another.