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Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad adds a well-deserved Pulitzer to its honors

The 2009 New Yorker Festival: Fiction Night
Colson Whitehead at the 2009 New Yorker Festival.
Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad — about a woman escaping from slavery, with just a hint of magical realism — has won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which means Colson Whitehead is having a very good year indeed.

The Pulitzer comes after The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award, after it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, and after Moonlight director Barry Jenkins signed on to adapt it for television. (Plus, it has the prestigious distinction of making Vox’s “best novels of the year” list.)

So really, the Pulitzer just makes it official: Now that it’s April 2017, we can say with certainty that The Underground Railroad was 2016’s book of the year.

It’s a well-deserved honor. The Underground Railroad is a thoughtful, allegorical journey through America’s ugly history of racism. As Cora, the main character, flees from a plantation in Georgia through the slave states via the Underground Railroad, she subtly travels through time, and each station on the railroad delivers her to another instance of American racism: the Tuskegee syphilis experiments of the 1970s in South Carolina; the lynch mobs of the Jim Crow era in North Carolina.

It’s also an old-fashioned page turner. Cora is pursued every step of her journey by a terrifying, Javert-like slave catcher, and Whitehead keeps the tension high and the pacing propulsive. You’re never quite sure that Cora will really get away this time, so you keep turning the pages and turning the pages, and the next thing you know it’s 4 am and you accidentally stayed up all night reading this thoughtful and serious book about American racism.

The Underground Railroad is not only viscerally pleasurable to read — it’s also filled with ideas that will swirl around in your head for weeks afterward as you mull them over. It fully deserves all the recognition it has received.

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