Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

3 of 5 stars
Published 2016

Reader: Clarke Peters
Abridger: Sara Davies
Producer: Mair Bosworth

This wasn’t a book I expected to read right now, though I thought I might at some point. Then I saw via Twitter that BBC Radio 4 was streaming this book for free online for the next few weeks. It’s produced for their Book at Bedtime series. Perfect. Why not? I’ve never listened to an audio book before. This one appears to be abridged which means it’s not word for word what’s in the actual book but conveys the story. I think this still counts as a book read/heard, though!

This is the story of a slave, Cora, who is terribly used and abused on the plantation where she lives. A new slave, Caesar, decides to run away on the Underground Railroad. In this story, it’s an actual railroad and train, not a network of safe houses and hidey holes like it was in reality. There are sympathetic abolitionists at each stop/terminus who help hide the slaves/passengers until they can catch another train. Cora and Caesar run and in the process, during a confrontation, Cora accidentally kills a young white man. Even more reason to run, now, since she’s branded as a murderer.

The story follows Cora through several stops including both North and South Carolina and Indiana. Each stop finds Cora with the slavecatcher on her heels and facing the horrors of racism and slavery. There’s an element of fantasy to the book as well, or at least it felt like it. Some of the things like early surgery to perform tubaligations to enforce birth control seem a bit unread given the historic period, early 1800s, that the book is covering. But you go with it. There are lynchings and shootings. Cora is in danger much of the time. Caesar disappears, presumably captured or killed. Cora manages escapes that almost seem worthy of a Hollywood movie heroine and perhaps we will see that at some point.

This book has been really promoted and hyped. It’s won some awards and has had the backing of both Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. Heady recommendations, indeed. Is it worth the hype? Maybe. The story itself is pretty good. I would imagine the book details a lot more of the horrific things that happened so it would be difficult to read at times. I admit, as a white person, it wouldn’t resonate as deeply with me.  I would probably be more engaged in a book I could read rather than listen to and I may pick this up in paper or ebook format at some point.

The abridged audio version didn’t really flesh out many of the secondary characters and each incident seemed very isolated, and viewed a bit from a distance even if Cora was directly involved. It almost feels at times like it’s “this happened, then this happened, etc” You don’t really feel emotionally attached to Cora. I don’t know whether that’s due to the audio version or if the book conveys that as well. I’ve read some other reviews that suggest I’m not alone in that opinion. Secondary characters and flashbacks into their lives are there to depict more nuggets of abuse, not really contributing to the main story. Only one of the flashbacks actually ties up a plot thread.

This is my first try at an audio book and I have to say I’m a bit iffy on the format. That’s mainly due to my attention tending to wander. The reader seemed pretty good. He changed his voice a bit for different characters but not so much that it was jarring. I don’t know that it would be a format I’d end up using much but it was certainly worth a try. I’d say the book and story were good but not great. I’ve read other fictional accounts depicting slavery that I couldn’t put down and thought about afterwards. This won’t stick with me but maybe that’s due to the audio format. Your mileage may vary.


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