Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, and they plot their escape. Matters do not go as planned - Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her - but they manage to find a station and head north.
In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is not a metaphor - a secret network of tracks and tunnels has been built beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, where both find work in a city that at first seems like a haven. But the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens - and Ridgeway, the relentless slave-catcher sent to find her, arrives in town. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing journey, state-by-state, seeking true freedom.
Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey - Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in states in the pre-Civil War era. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage, and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.