Author Endures Harrowing Research to Create Realistic Journey of Slavery; Colson Whitehead Had a Working Knowledge of Slavery When He Started His Latest Novel. but as He Researched "The Underground Railroad" (Doubleday, $26.95), Whitehead Realized There Were Many Facets of the Horrid Institution of Which He Was Not Aware. [Derived Headline]

By Behe, Rege | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 22, 2016 | Go to article overview

Author Endures Harrowing Research to Create Realistic Journey of Slavery; Colson Whitehead Had a Working Knowledge of Slavery When He Started His Latest Novel. but as He Researched "The Underground Railroad" (Doubleday, $26.95), Whitehead Realized There Were Many Facets of the Horrid Institution of Which He Was Not Aware. [Derived Headline]


Behe, Rege, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Colson Whitehead had a working knowledge of slavery when he started his latest novel. But as he researched "The Underground Railroad" (Doubleday, $26.95), Whitehead realized there were many facets of the horrid institution of which he was not aware.

"We don't, in our daily lives generally, do such a deep immersion into the true facts of slavery, the history of slavery," says Whitehead, who appears Oct. 24 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evenings. "I came at the material as anyone else. Whether it was slaves wearing wooden shoes or the fact of huge plantations in the South that we know from pop culture versus small family farms in North Carolina. The variety of what they ate to how hard it was to run away from the incredibly baroque and sadistic punishments heaped upon the slaves to keep them in line. Researching the railroad and going through the slave narratives obviously opened up my understanding of how slavery worked."

Whitehead's novel has earned him a National Book Award nomination. "The Underground Railroad" also was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. His previous novels, including "The Intuitionist," "Sag Harbor" and "Zone One," were well-received by critics, but Oprah's golden touch has vaulted Whitehead into new territory.

"It's my first real best-seller," he says of the story that follows Cora, born into slavery in Georgia, on an excruciating trek to freedom. "And it's continuing to have a life through word of mouth. Some people are telling their friends and family to pick it up. I've had really huge attendance at the readings."

That spike in interest comes even though there are sections of "The Underground Railroad" that are difficult to read. Whitehead's depiction of the Freedom Trail in North Carolina is particularly harrowing, with the corpses of runaway slaves "hung from trees as rotting ornaments. …

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Author Endures Harrowing Research to Create Realistic Journey of Slavery; Colson Whitehead Had a Working Knowledge of Slavery When He Started His Latest Novel. but as He Researched "The Underground Railroad" (Doubleday, $26.95), Whitehead Realized There Were Many Facets of the Horrid Institution of Which He Was Not Aware. [Derived Headline]
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