The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead ($26.95) is a harrowing story of pre-Civil War slave life and a powerful allegory of race relations. Like her mother Mabel before her, a young slave girl, Cora, runs away from a cotton plantation in Georgia where the brutal treatment of slaves is a daily occurrence. Cora is haunted by Mabel’s disappearance; she has never been found nor has she contacted her daughter. Cora makes her own escape and finds herself on the Underground Railroad, which in Whitehead’s imagined South is an actual railroad, running on tracks through deep tunnels under the earth. Throughout her journey north, Cora exists between terror and hope. She is obsessively pursued by the same slave catcher who was unable to capture her mother and faces cruel and fantastical encounters with racism’s many faces at every stop on the railroad.
Bill and Eugene, two brothers in a small North Carolina town in the late 1960s, are bewitched by Ligeia, a free-spirited girl visiting from Daytona Beach for the summer. She introduces them to sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and the boys find themselves living duplicitous lives under the watchful eye of their grandfather, a stern local physician with high hopes for his grandsons. Their meeting place is a secluded pool along a local creek. The enchanting Ligeia vanishes at the end of that long-ago summer, and Bill claims that he drove her to Asheville to catch the bus back to Florida. Many decades later, as the creek bank erodes, her body rises up and is discovered. The story is recounted by Eugene, the younger brother, a divorced alcoholic who relies heavily on his older brother Bill, who has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and is a successful surgeon in Asheville. The already-strained relationship between the brothers threatens to fracture, as one believes the other to be a murderer, while their grandfather casts a long shadow between them.