The 101st Pulitzer Prizes were just announced, and this year’s fiction winner was no surprise. Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, has been gathering awards and acclaim since its publication in 2016, including the prestigious National Book Award. Whitehead’s novel won against two other bestsellers from the last year, Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett and The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan.
According to the committee, Whitehead’s work won “for a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America.” If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out on one of the most important, thrilling, and thought-provoking novels ever published.
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Whitehead takes a topic many feel familiar with—the Underground Railroad—and turns it into a literal train to freedom. Said to mirror Gulliver’s Travels, Whitehead’s protagonist, a fiercely strong, clever, and independent teenager named Cora, escapes her abusive plantation and journeys north through different states, which are manifested as entirely different worlds. In an interview with Vogue, Whitehead said: “What if every state that [Cora] traveled through was a different state of American possibility?”
The resulting journey traverses pre-Civil War America and explores the racial horrors that plagued freed slaves, even in the North—from invasive, unethical medical experiments to crazed, violent slave catchers who carried captured slaves’ body parts as trophies.
Whitehead’s writing is contemporary enough for readers to draw commonalities between the racial divides in America then and the current racial and political climate of today. The vivid descriptions and unflinching look at slavery have provoked discussions across the country.