The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead,

Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Book description



'Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime' Guardian


Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Why read it?

8 authors picked The Underground Railroad as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

I am including The Underground Railroad as it’s both historical fiction and magical realism—a beautiful surrealist imagining of Civil War history. This inventive novel follows Cora, who is enslaved on a plantation in Georgia. When Cora hears of the underground railroad, she plots her escape—but in this book, the railroad is more than a secret network. It is a real, physical, underground train. Cora must fight for her life and her freedom on a harrowing journey north, evading the slave hunter Ridgeway as he seeks to track her down. Cora’s strength and independence make her a character that will stick…

The Underground Railroad combines historical fiction and fantasy in a tale that exposes injustice. Set in antebellum America, the novel is told from the slave’s perspective, exposing the violence and suffering inherent in this inhumane system. Regarding his use of fantasy, Colson uses a literal train network underground, rather than the historical hodgepodge system used to help runaway slaves escape to the North. He also creates a Black dormitory where residents are secretly subjected to forced sterilization and are the unknowing subjects of a study on the progression of syphilis, akin to the actual Tuskegee experiment of the…

Blending the magical and the historical with a master’s touch, Whitehead imagines a universe in which the Underground Railroad is an actual underground railroad. The novel follows Cora and her friend Caesar as they escape from slavery and make their way north in search of true freedom. A chilling refraction of the horrors of slavery, the book is a page-turner that doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the antebellum South and will stick with you long after you’ve finished.

From Michael's list on magical historical.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Colson Whitehead seems to grow heavier and darker with each chapter, but it is an important read because it is steeped in real-life American slave history. If you have never read any type of Black magical realism, where one foot stands in the real world and another in a strange, almost parallel universe, then you might want to start with this one.

I seriously found the idea behind this book intriguing and kept wondering if the author could maintain it. The idea is that the underground railway that helped slaves escape the southern states of the USA was an actual railroad that had been built underground. The book so closely integrates this into actual history that it is never the predominant idea – which is more about the complexity of those who helped slaves escape, those who tracked them, and of course the slaves seeking freedom themselves. As a result, it does maintain the idea well.

The reason I so love this novel is that it seamlessly blends the horrific elements of a realistic portrayal of slavery, with a beautifully rendered fantasy/symbolic element. The two merge flawlessly to form a world that is at once brutal and appalling with another that is highly symbolic, fantastical, and lyrical in its beauty. The most obvious and compelling example of the latter element is referred to in the title itself—the mythically depicted underground railroad. Unlike the real one (run by heroes like Harriet Tubman), Whitehead’s symbolic railroad develops on an imaginative and magical level, which suggests the “underground” reality…

From Michael's list on slavery from both sides.

This searing read also has a fascinating concept at its heart. The ‘underground railroad’ in reality was a secret network of people in the southern states of America that helped slaves escape tyranny. By changing one fact, making the railroad an actual, physical entity, it brilliantly shines new light on the immense horror of the time. Rarely has a book stayed with me so long, or made me question human behaviour and the darkest days of our shared history. 

From Damian's list on that bring history to life.

This novel is fully deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. It is about a runaway slave called Cora, and it takes us from plantation bondage, on an odyssey through the dark corners of American life in the 19th century. It does this through the magical realist device of an underground railroad. The characters jump off the page and the tense and gripping plotting will have your glands sweating and your blood pumping. 

From Michael's list on dark historical fiction.

Want books like The Underground Railroad?

Our community of 9,000+ authors has personally recommended 100 books like The Underground Railroad.

Browse books like The Underground Railroad

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in fugitive slaves, the Underground Railroad, and magical realism?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about fugitive slaves, the Underground Railroad, and magical realism.

Fugitive Slaves Explore 17 books about fugitive slaves
The Underground Railroad Explore 19 books about the Underground Railroad
Magical Realism Explore 368 books about magical realism