Colson Whitehead has won just about every literary accolade there is for The Underground Railroad: The Pulitzer prize, the Carnegie Medal, and the National Book Award are but three. The book is also a New York Times best seller and it’s being translated into 40 languages.
The novel tells the story of Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation somewhere in the 1850s, and her desperate attempt to escape to freedom. It pulls no punches about the brutal reality of slavery in the antebellum south, nor does it sugarcoat the less obvious but equally repellent bigotry of the north.
"It is very vivid, I think, in how it describes the violence of how slaves were kept in chains," says Whitehead. "You know, they didn’t use harsh language to keep millions of people in bondage. They raped, tortured, dehumanized millions of people to prevent them from running away and rising up."
Yet despite the harshness of its subject matter, the book is hopeful and the character of Cora is utterly compelling. Whitehead explains that a major part of writing the novel was to come up with someone who had the personality to survive slavery; "someone who would have the capacity to hope, that there's a place of refuge in the north, and to have the courage to flee the plantation."