The Underground Railroad (Doubleday), Colson Whitehead’s gloriously inventive novel about slavery, kept picking up steam as 2016 rolled along.
►Oprah Winfrey picked it for her book club in August, and it became an instant USA TODAY best seller.
►President Obama, fresh off a vacation, said Americans should read it.
►In a final wow, it won the National Book Award for fiction in November.
For all those reasons — and because The Underground Railroad is, simply, a well-told story that’s wonderful to read — Whitehead is USA TODAY’s Author of the Year.
The success of Underground Railroad has elevated Whitehead, 47, to a new level of fame and acclaim. He wrote his first novel, The Intuitionist, about elevator inspectors, in 1999. Like The Underground Railroad, it dealt with race and included fantastical elements.
Railroad, Whitehead’s sixth novel, combines harsh reality — slavery in the antebellum South — with a vividly imagined alternative world, one in which the Underground Railroad is a literal subterranean network of tracks and stations.
Whitehead’s heroine, a teenage runaway slave named Cora, is a strong-willed survivor, a girl on a train escaping, she hopes, to freedom. Getting there will not be easy.
A careful reader will note influences as diverse and fascinating as Gulliver’s Travels, The Diary of Anne Frank and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Whitehead's book.
In May at BookExpo America in Chicago, Whitehead spoke of the destructive “after-effects” of slavery in modern America and introduced his forthcoming novel to a large breakfast crowd.
“I was 7 years old when Roots was first broadcast, and my parents gathered all us kids around the TV to learn about how we got here,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I sat down and immersed myself in the research that I got the barest inkling of what it meant to be a slave.”
Winfrey, who played a slave in the movie version of Beloved, Toni Morrison’s classic book, described The Underground Railroad as “one of the most grim, gripping, powerful novels about slavery I have ever experienced.”
And in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Obama called Whitehead’s novel a “terrific book, powerful in discussing some of the issues around race and American history.”
Terrible things happen in The Underground Railroad, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. As Winfrey said in making her selection: “At the end you feel a sense of inspiration. … I think (there is) no better book for a time such as this.”