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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2017 

The Newest Oprah Book Club 2016 Selection

From prize-winning, bestselling author 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. 

Click here to see other past selections from Oprah.
©2016 Colson Whitehead (P)2016 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Bahni Turpin's narration is near perfection as she captures the emotional heart of this audiobook.... By using well-crafted dialect and authentic-sounding accents, Turpin believably dramatizes the wide range of characters.... Turpin's strong performance combined with author Whitehead's affecting writing makes this the one audiobook you cannot miss." ( AudioFile)

Featured Article: The Greatest, Most Notable American Writers of All Time


To curate a list of famous American writers who are also considered among the best American authors, a few things count: current ratings for their works, their particular time periods in history, critical reception, their prevalence in the 21st century, and yes, the awards they won. Many of these authors are taught in school today, and hopefully, several more of them will be taught in school in the near future.

What listeners say about The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club)

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    5 out of 5 stars

Stupendous book, hard to follow in audio

I started this on a drive but ended up buying the Kindle version and reading it. It's one of the best books I ever read; deeply moving, vivid, and important. But his time cuts and character introductions make it hard to follow as a listener. The reader was fine; it's the book's structure that's challenging.

135 people found this helpful

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Hard to follow in audio format

Any additional comments?

The story is fascinating and important, but there are aspects to the story that make it hard to follow in this format. It felt like there were opening quotes, or ads searching for missing slaves at the introduction of each chapter, which didn't translate well in audio. There is also quite a bit of reminiscing done by the characters which also became difficult to understand.I may go back and re-read this sometime because I feel like I kept missing parts. I would recommend the book, but I would recommend reading it as opposed to listening.

91 people found this helpful

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Sometimes a useful delusion > a useless truth.

“Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.”
― Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I loved the book. I read it right after reading the recent Blight biography of Frederick Douglass - Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. I was in the mood. I also read it after Whitehead's most recent, devastating novel - The Nickel Boys. So, I was definitely well prepared to step down into Whitehead's world.

Interestingly, a lot of what I enjoyed about this novel were items called out by other reviewers as negatives. I loved the structure of the novel. The Underground Railroad being literal adds a bit of magical realism to the novel. It isn't a novel about the Underground Railroad. It IS a novel about slavery and being black in America, and the Underground Railroad is simply the frame that allows Whitehead to move the narrator forward and backward through time and space to describe different characteristics of what it means to be a slave in the South in America. Fantastic.

A second critique of the novel that I actually found both critical and important is that just as you were getting to know a character, they would die or disappear (clearly, these reviewers weren't fans of Game of Thrones). That perceived flaw, for me, was a brilliant device where Whitehead is able to transfer to the reader just a bit of how disruptive and disjoined the life of a slave must have felt. You form connections and BAM you are sold. You love someone and SNAP they are ripped from you. In life, those connections are never tied off neatly. People disappear. They die. Stories get left untold. Those shifts come suddenly and painfully, especially under slavery's hard hand and cruel lash.

Some reviewers were irritated by some of the language, behavior, or cultural anachronisms of the novel. This isn't meant to be historical fiction. This is magical realism. This is emotional fiction. So, I'm not sure I need it to have a perfect verisimilitude to pre-Civil War America. If Whitehead's anachronisms were accidental, which I doubt, that might be different, but I believe Colson Whitehead is aiming not just to tell a story about slavery, but about racism and his target isn't the Antebellum South, but our modern racist present AND the way we enslave others beyond chains. What? You mean there weren't actually trains running back and forth underneath the South? I might be wrong, but I wouldn't bet your freedom on it.

Finally, there is the irritation about it winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017. It must be bad. It won a prize. First, I'm fond appropriating a quote from Willam Gass where he apologized after winning some prize, saying he would try better next time. There is a certain truth to the fact that prize winners tend to often gravitate towards safe picks. Often, those committees steer towards consensus and safe, but that doesn't also mean they sometimes don't get it right. Whitehead has produced, again and again, great fiction. Is he also writing fiction that sells? Sure, but so did Dickens and Twain. Does winning the Pulitzer Prize somehow diminish the book itself? No, that is silly. Does it mean in 2017 there were no better novels published? Absolutely not. I could almost guarantee that outside the realm of prize fiction, and bestsellers, some of the best fiction lies under-appreciated and unread by most. That was the case for Moby-Dick for years and a lot of people consume mediocre shit most of the time (just look at the most popular restaurants). But popular and well-known novels can also kick ass. Q.E.D.

13 people found this helpful

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okqy but not great

there's a lot more detail in story upfront..... ending was kind of rushed all of a sudden.

5 people found this helpful

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Oh, what could have been...

Every great book has a moment, or moments, where it transcends its nature as a mere story and becomes something great, something more. Whitehead sets up many of these moments but fails to execute every time. Certain themes, like that of the body and the idea of torture as entertainment, need to be further explored. The saving grace for this audio book is Banhi Turpin's stellar performance.

4 people found this helpful

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Narrator is fantastic and the story is a Good one

What did you love best about The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club)?

I like the narrator a lot. I can't make it through a novel unless the narrator is competent, no matter how good the narrative is.

Who was your favorite character and why?

I liked all of the characters. Even the unlikable characters were fun to hear about.

Have you listened to any of Bahni Turpin’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

No I have not, but I will listen to more in the future if she narrates novels in which I am interested. She was the perfect narrator for this story.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

I did not laugh, as this is not a comedic novel, and I have never cried while listening to an audiobook. My reaction was not extreme, but I was interested in the story for the entire way through it.

Any additional comments?

This is brilliant concept in regards to the actual Underground Railroad. I like what the author has done here, and I imagine this novel will be studied in literature classes in the future. I do suggest giving it a try.

27 people found this helpful

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Great info, weak story

The subject matter is wonderful and I applaud the efforts of the author to include many details that are often isolated to academic articles. However, though strong on the academic side, the storytelling failed to engage me in the way that really good historical fiction should. I feel almost bad giving a book with a fantastic subject less than a fantastic review, but it simply didn't live up to the hype. The good news is that there is still room for an author who can provide excellent research *and* an engaging story.

I would say that the subject matter is important enough that I would recommend this book, even if the story could have been better.

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Hard to follow

I was interested in the premise of the book. For there to be an actual Underground Railroad is a very interesting concept. However, the story was very difficult to follow because you were constantly changing back and forth in time. Trying to maintain who was speaking in reference to what was confusing. It was just not as interesting as I'd hoped it would be.

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Gripping

The narrator was excellent! I was unable to out it down! I plan to recommend this book to friends and family.

52 people found this helpful

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Imagining a railroad underground


Whether an author resents the spotlight (Franzen) or views the distinction as manna from heaven, once a book has been branded with The Oprah Winfrey Book Club sticker, I generally feel inclined to pass – only because I am concerned my opinion will be swayed by the shadow of the mega-star. Even here, with a subject I am drawn to, I have to wonder if this is a book that I would have read, and in hindsight I think it's a good book that got a boost. Either way, it was a worthwhile read that I would recommend on its own merits. My early desire to learn about slavery in America was actually ignited by way of Siam (Thailand), circa 1860....

Margaret Landon wrote a novel based on the diaries of Anna Harriette Leonowens that in 1956 would become the fifth musical by the acclaimed team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The novel was Anna and the King of Siam; the musical was The King and I starring Yul Bryner and Deborah Kerr. As a young child, I saw the film on TV, but I wasn’t too young to experience one of my first *Aha Moments.* The servants of the king stage a surreally beautiful Siamese version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." I told my mother I wanted to be a dancer, and more importantly, I wanted to read the book about Uncle Tom's Cabin. I wouldn't sit down with Eliza, Tom, and the monstrously cruel Simon Legree until years later, but Stowe’s 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly,” even though less grand than I expected, ignited the initial spark that helped me understand the inhumanity of slavery.

Author Colson Whitehead sets out to give us history through the haze of a nightmare, imagining the legendary Underground Railroad as an actual train that actually runs underground. Whitehead's railroad is a white-knuckle dark journey where the desperate passengers must blindly put their trust in shadowy strangers; directions and destinations are obscure; the cost to ride may very likely be the escapee's life, or possibly abuse that could make them wish to be dead. To set out to even find the passage to freedom is to step off into the unknown. It is a riveting and emotional read that’s hard to put down. Parts of the story felt nightmarish, otherworldly: the towns where the slaves would hideout, the weekly hanging spectacles, the betrayal by neighbors; at times it had a bizarre carnival atmosphere.

The story succeeds in the tradition of most books in this genre, reminding us of the barbarism and unimaginable cruelties endured by these men, women and children. Additionally, I felt it was more psychological, drawing the reader into the strategies and thinking of Cora. The writing needs to be noted; it is incredible. Whitehead has plenty of official accolades and awards -- it's obvious as you read Underground Railroad that he is an author that deserves the attention. In the future, if considering a novel, his name will be a selling point for me
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My feelings, however, were conflicted. I didn't love the actualized metaphor of the underground railroad. I felt in some way it simplified the journey of these people in an otherwise excellent novel. Underground Railroad is worth a read, a reminder – it’s another chapter of the experience, but it didn't enlarge the facts or expand the experience for me. The perspective of imagining, the *what-if* hovered over the story like an interruption. It might be the specter of The Oprah Winfrey Book Club sticker, but it's hard for me to rate this completely objectively. I stick to my first opinion...a good book that got a boost.

66 people found this helpful