Whitehead’s novel focuses on the life of a teenage slave named Cora who eventually runs away from the Randall Plantation in Georgia, where she lived with her mother and late grandmother. Her mother, Mabel, ran away years ago, and Cora believes that if being free was worth the risk for her mother, then it is a risk she is willing to take. She knows what happens to slaves who try to run away – they are mutilated, abused and then killed gruesomely in a public manner to prevent other slaves from trying to run off.
But Cora has the help of Caesar, a slave who can read and who has allies in the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead’s book, the Underground Railroad is an actual network underground, complete with subway-style stations and train platforms.
Cora is never really free as she runs from town to town across North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana. In North Carolina, it is illegal for her to be in the state, so she hides out in an attic for months until her captors are discovered and brutally hanged in the town square.