Colson Whitehead has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity with his new book Underground Railroad. Oprah herself brought back her book club and put Whitehead’s tale of historical fiction on the top of her list. The twist in this book is that the Underground Railroad is an actual train that takes slaves to freedom.
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The story focuses on a young slave girl named Cora. Smart, bold, and brave, Cora manages to escape her Georgia plantation and embarks on a wild journey through the Underground Railroad. The villain in the story is a power tripping slave catcher who goes by the name of Ridgeway.
Ridgeway becomes completely determined to find Cora because years ago her mother, Mabel, was able to escape under his watch. Not only does he want to capture Cora due to a misplaced sense of self-redemption, he also wants to dismantle the entire railroad system himself.
As the story progresses, many other racist groups attempt to interfere with Cora’s escape. Fortunately Cora is not alone, the railroad is run by black and white Americans who are trying to fight back against the racist south.
Much of his inspiration comes from classic slave novels like Incidents in the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs as well as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Whitehead wanted to convey a matter-of-fact writing style which emphasizes the brutual subjigation of slaves and how these events effect the individual.
Whitehead has enjoyed decent success and attention for his previous books such as The Intuitionist and John Henry Days. In a recent interview with The New York Times he described his reaction to national recognition as feeling “dazed by his impending ride into a bigger spotlight.”
Like most writers, Whitehead takes an introspective position about his newly acquired fame; “I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around how people are responding to the book.” He went on to say, “I’m honored by the response to the novel, but I was like, ‘Can we just talk about the book.’” Yes we can talk about the book Mr. Whitehead, and I think we will be talking about it for a very long time.
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