The underground railroad came just in time. I had known of Whitehead's conceit--a real, physical underground railroad--but it took me another several chapters to understand how it worked. "The Underground Railroad" is neither science fiction nor magical realism. Thank goodness. The physical underground railroad is a time-saving device and the states to which it took protagonist Cora (South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana) are tropes for the various (and unpleasant) experiences of Africans in America. Whether brutalized or sterilized, in hiding, escaping, or seemingly free, the fate of even the strongest-willed of escaped slaves like Cora was never safe from the depredations of American race-based slavery.
"The Underground Railroad" does not end happily. Whitehead has Cora yet again on the run and the reader is left uncertain whether she will every find the freedom and opportunity for self-determination she demands. "Live free or die" could be Cora's motto as well as New Hampshire's. And, by extension, the motto for all African-Americans.
"The Underground Railroad" and its author deserve their awards While I can recommend it with the proviso that it's not for the faint of heart, I still strongly commend it to my readers' attention.