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March 6, 2021

The Underground Railroad

 



Fiction
2016 Random House Audio
Read by Bahni Turpin
Finished on March 1, 2021
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Publisher's Blurb:

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.

I have now read two novels written by Colson Whitehead and I don't think I'll read any more. My book group chose The Underground Railroad for our March discussion and I decided to listen to the audio since it's read by the wonderful Bahni Turpin. Turpin's narration is fine, but I never felt like I knew Cora or any of the other characters, for that matter. It took me a long time to get interested in Cora's story, but once I did there would suddenly be the introduction of new characters or locations, which was jarring and confusing. I was never fully engrossed in the book and often found my mind wandering as I walked while listening to the audio. 

Judging from the high ratings by my friends on Goodreads, I am undoubtedly in the minority, although a few readers have shared my thoughts, claiming the book lacks emotion, is distant and impersonal. Will I watch the ten-episode limited series when it hits Amazon Prime on May 14th? Possibly. Maybe this will be one of those rare instances when the movie is better than the book.

Click here for my review of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

14 comments:

  1. I still haven't read Colson Whitehead, but when and if I do, it will be in print form which seems to work better for me. I can read so much faster than I can listen!

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    1. Jenclair, of the two books I would recommend The Nickel Boys.

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  2. I was really impressed by Nickel Boys, but this one just hasn't tempted me. Borrowed Sag Harbor from the library once and couldn't get into it, but maybe I didn't allow enough time. Not sure where this leaves me with Colson Whitehead...

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    1. JoAnn, I might have enjoyed this one better if I had read the print edition rather than listening to the audio, but who knows. My mom and a book club friend both said they found the print edition disjointed and confusing, too. Oh, well. They can't all be winners, I suppose.

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  3. I've had this book for a few years but never got to it, now I'm wondering if I will. I want to watch the series when it comes out though.

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    1. Vicki, the print edition might be easier to follow, but I know of a few people who have said it was disjointed, so maybe not. I think I will give the series a try, too.

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  4. I know this one has received a lot of praise but it hasn't been high on my radar. I would love to check out Nickel Boys though. I may try that one first and then see if I would like to read this one.

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    1. Iliana, I knew Whitehead won the Pulitzer prize for this book, but just learned that he also won it for The Nickel Boys. I'll be interested to hear what you think about his books, should you read one of them.

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  5. WOW, sorry you didn't like this more Les. It's one I had wanted to read. I really liked The Nickel Boys even though it was a tough read.

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    1. Diane, maybe I'll appreciate it more after my book club discussion. The Nickel Boys was a difficult read, wasn't it?

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  6. I had started the audio of The Underground Railroad but quickly lost track of it ... so I stopped and decided to read it another time in print instead. Maybe I'll get more out of it in print. I did think The Nickel Boys was harsh but well done ... especially the ending. Glad you let me know about the May series ... hmm.

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    1. Susan, it's not the best book for audio, is it? Too jumbled.

      I assume you are back in Canada and hope you didn't have any trouble crossing the border. I also hope your dad is doing better.

      Hugs.

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  7. His writing doesn't work for me. It takes a lot of effort to read him. He is very well received in most circles but like you, I don't plan to read him again unless he writes about a subject matter that I can't ignore.

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    1. Other than Beloved, I feel the same way about Toni Morrison's books. And Margaret Atwood's.

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