Now, I’m sure the people judging the 2016 National Book Awards are not in Oprah Winfrey’s pocket, nor did they consult with her in deciding on what the winner of this year’s fiction award was, but it just so happens that the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for fiction is one of Oprah’s Picks: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, which, coincidentally or not, we have here at the Field Library in both regular and express forms.
If you’re the kind of person who runs out and reads whatever Oprah picks, I don’t need to tell you anything about this book because you undoubtedly already read it in September when it first arrived on the shelf. If, on the other hand, you’re one of those people who assumes that all Oprah books are the same stories of triumph against odds, you might want to reconsider and look into The Underground Railroad. It might surprise you.
This is not an ordinary historical novel (not that I have anything against ordinary historical novels, of course!) but a kind of alternate history look at the institution of slavery in America. The protagonist, Cora, is a young African American woman enslaved on a plantation in Georgia at the beginning of the book, worried about her future as she enters puberty and is afraid of what’s going to happen to her. She meets another slave who tells her of the legendary Underground Railroad and the two of them decide to escape together on the Railroad. However, this is not the Underground Railroad we’ve grown up reading about: Whitehead has taken what was a metaphor and turned it into a real train, that really travels under the ground, with stops in various places that are, in some ways, more unreal than the train itself. In the same way that Gulliver’s Travels showed readers different views of life in 18th century Europe through the Lilliputians and Brobdingnags, The Underground Railroad shows us different aspects of slavery and race relations over the centuries by vivid depictions of the stops Cora takes on her desperate trek to freedom. The book has been described as hallucinatory and surreal in places, but it’s a bestseller (thanks to Oprah, no doubt) and now it’s the National Book Award winner for the year. Congratulations to Colson Whitehead, and if you’re at all curious about what the fuss is about, come to the library and take it out for yourself.