Have you ever read one of those books that haunted you with its beautiful yet brutal story? That kept you spellbound with terse sentences that depicted the scenes better with words not said? Hemingway did it. Now I count The Underground Railroad as another. I mean, look at this:

The slave catcher had little choice but to call upon the man after midnight. He daintily sewed their hoods from white sacks of flour but could barely move his fingers after their visit–his fists swelled for two days from beating the man’s face in.

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Short description: a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

In this story, the underground railroad is a real thing: with steam trains, conductors and engineers and secret codes. Cora, the protagonist, goes through stations in her bid for freedom and encounters a version of America as it might have been. The South and North Carolina she encounters aren’t “real” in the sense of historical accuracy. Yet it terrifies you with its ring of truth and plausibility.

The Underground Railroad is unflinchingly brutal and frank about the horrors of being a slave in pre-Civil War South. The tragedy seems almost relentless. The passages that depict rest and respite serve to magnify the agony that lies next. I have an iron stomach for this type of thing, but it may be too much for those who have a low tolerance for suffering and angst. Cora survives, but whether she gets a “happy ending” remains to be seen.

I always appreciate realism in stories and The Underground Railroad is top-notch in that regard. Everyone breathes, acts and talks like real people. I can picture Cora with her indomitable will to survive, her inability to imagine a brighter future because she never had the chance and the trauma that prevents her from connecting to a man she loves until it is too late. Terrance Ridgeway is a chilling villain, and like many magnificent villains, he JUST WON’T DIE, even until the very end. Terrifying.

The underground railroad, with its stations, black steam engine trains, and engineers, still linger in my mind as dark paintings. Cora thoughts when she encounters liberty will stay with me for a while. Like this one:

Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.

I’ve read plenty of books that received rewards, but The Underground Railroad is one of the few I thought deserved it.