I don't even want to write about this book because there's no way I'm going to do it justice, from the merits of the writing to the surprise early release to the could-not-be-more timely message.
But I have to do something with all this excitement bubbling up in my guts. (Too vivid?) So here we are.
First of all, OPRAH. Oprah is a poetic, noble land mermaid (credit Leslie Knope). She's a reader, and she wants everyone in her intergalactic Oprah orbit to be a reader too. And when she read an advance copy of The Underground Railroad and loved it, she apparently called up the publisher and was like, “Hey, I want The Underground Railroad to be my next Oprah's Book Club pick.” And they were probably like, “Really? YAY!” And then she was probably like, “Oh, by the way, why don't we secretly move the release date up by a month and shock the hell out of everyone paying attention to the book industry?” And they were like, “Yes, Oprah. We will, Oprah” because QUEEN OPRAH GETS THINGS DONE.
I'm pretty sure that's how it went.
Anyway, imagine the egg on my face when on August 2nd, I'm blithely scrolling through the Internets and discover that Whitehead's new book—the book I had an advance copy of just sitting on my Kindle unread, because, you know, IT WASN'T DUE OUT FOR ANOTHER MONTH—was already on store shelves THAT DAY. And here's a video of Oprah walking in the woods (?) and talking about how much she loved it. Surprise!
I think I actually looked around wildly for a moment, sitting at my desk at work, because surely if news this big is dropping, I can't be the only one freaking out. Of course, I work in a law office, so for everyone else it was just Tuesday.
Obviously, any plans I had to read any book other than The Underground Railroad went sailing out the window, and I dove in as soon as humanly possible. And while I realize that I am an impressionable gal and susceptible to a bit of hype-blindness, I don't think it's an overstatement to say that it is an absolute masterpiece. Colson Whitehead could put his laptop on the top shelf of the closet, retire to the Caymans and never write another word in his life, and his legacy would be secure. (But dear Lord, please don't do that, Colson Whitehead!)
His novel is a slave narrative following the life of Cora, born into slavery in Georgia, but it takes place in a slightly skewed historical reality. In Cora's world, the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad under the ground, a rickety network of tracks and ramshackle cars leading from hellish bondage to supposed freedom in the North. Some might wonder, why make that choice? Why deviate in such an obvious way from what we know to be historically true?
To me, the answer gets at the heart of why I read fiction. Emily Dickinson understood this when she wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” She ends the poem with this: “The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” Whitehead knows historical fact and truth are two different things. Sometimes, if you really want people to take in what you're saying, it's best to approach the truth at an oblique angle.
And Cora is such a magnificent character. Her strength in the face of devastating cruelty. Her seething rage at being treated as someone's captive, someone's property. Her tentative reaching toward love and connection. Just beautiful.
Whitehead is already a decorated writer with a successful career. He didn't need Oprah's endorsement to validate his work. But I hope mightily that her tractor-beam spotlight brings him an even bigger audience. The more people who read The Underground Railroad and engage with the tough questions it asks, the better.
With regards to Doubleday and NetGalley for the not-so-advance copy. On sale now, thanks to Oprah.