By Leah Greenblatt
August 02, 2016 at 11:43 AM EDT

Cora’s life on a Georgia cotton plantation is a daily litany of body- and soul-crushing cruelties: ”misery tucked inside miseries, and you were meant to keep track.” So when another slave offers a way out, Cora takes it—and when a white boy dies during their escape, the journey takes on another kind of urgency. There’s a twist to the title—in Whitehead’s reimagining, the Underground Railroad isn’t a metaphor but an actual grid of tracks and boxcars built by secret supporters of the cause—and Cora’s travels, too, have the fantastical ring of allegory. Her America is a still-new nation full of memorable color and characters, but it’s also raw and vicious, a place that punishes the best intentions on a whim and rewards the ruthless over and over again. While supporting players come and go, Cora remains at the center of it all yet just out of reach—less the heroine of her own story than a witness to outrageous, extraordinary history. B+

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