Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Published by Random House Audio on September 13, 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Length: 10 hours 43 minutes
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. 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.
My top thoughts:
I kind of feel like I’m doing The Underground Railraod a disservice by only rating it 3 stars. It’s incredibly well written and the narration is superb. The story is compelling. I’m giving it 3 stars because, for me, it’s too brutal to enjoy at a higher rating level – even if it would have been wrong and unjust to tell it a different way. So please keep that in mind when considering my rating.
Anne and I buddy read this, as part of the COYER TV/Movie adaptations readathon. I don’t know if I would have picked it up if Anne hadn’t suggested it, and I’m thankful she did because the story is one worth having read. I know that she had a similar feeling and is also rating it 3 stars.
What I liked/didn’t like:
The Underground Railroad has a bit of historical reality, historical adaptation, and obvious fiction all mixed together. The brutality in the way the slaves, runaways, and those who try to help them are treated is very historically accurate. It’s what makes this book so hard to read, too. The adaptations that appear both Anne and I were frequently asking each other, “was that real? Did it really happen that way?” and we had to do some Googling to find out – it’s very interesting the things this book caused me to learn about black experience and how it differed from region to region. And then there’s the obvious fiction – the literal underground railroad in this book is a fantastical reinterpretation of the clandestine network that came to be called the underground railroad. And it was a neat addition to this story.
The way the story is told sometimes was a little jarring. We move between characters in a sometimes haphazard timeline that, honestly, didn’t really make a lot of sense most the time. But the majority of the story was told from from Cora’s perspective and was very engaging. I won’t say I couldn’t put it down, because as eager as I was to see her reach freedom, sometimes I just HAD to put it down because it was too much. I do think my only real criticism of the book would be the way it dwells in the negative. I’m not saying the cruelty should be glossed over; it shouldn’t. But it would have been nice if the book could have embraced the fiction element just a bit to give us an uplifting moment with a happy ending. What you get (without spoiling) is inconclusive and after ALL that Cora endured I feel little hope for her fictional future. Surely some escaped slaves had a happy ending… it would have been nice to feel that was in Cora’s future and maybe even see a little of it.
I’m incredibly thankful that I chose to listen to The Underground Railroad. Not only because the incredible Bahni Turpin narrates it beautifully, as has been my experience with everything she’s narrated, but because I think it made it easier to move through those particularly brutal moments.
So yes, I’d recommend The Underground Railroad, but I’d also say – prepare yourself for a difficult, worthwhile read.
NOTE: I did begin to watch the series on Amazon Prime and I have to say, it seems to be a really good adaptation. I watched 3 episodes and will probably finish it someday. But the brutality is even harder to watch than it was to read/listen to. And the sometimes random shifts seems to also hold true in the show. So I’m also not eager to finish it.