The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Narr. Bahni Turpin. Random House Audio, 2016. Audiobook: 10 hrs., 50 mins.

Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish 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 and, 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. 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.

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’m almost at a loss for words. I can’t think of anything I could say that would contribute to the overall reaction to this book. The only thing I can offer are my personal thoughts. It was a great book, of course. I mean, Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award for this. It’s an Oprah’s Book Club pick, which means it will sell forever. Bahni Turpin was a fantastic narrator for the audiobook. She’s always great. I do have a few things that have been swirling around in my head since I finished. I’m going to try to get them down here. We’ll see how coherent they are.

I found this story to be incredibly depressing, which I’m sure is intended. I don’t think a story set in this period of American history could be anything but depressing. I’m sure it’s a harder read for other readers, but it seemed to hit me a little harder than I expected. It occurred to me that I really haven’t read many books that are set during the time of slavery. I definitely haven’t read many books specifically about slavery. It filled me with sadness. I won’t say that I’ll never read it again because I might. I’d be interested to see how different the experience is in print. It was just really tough to get through.

As terrifying as it was, I loved Whitehead’s take on differences between states. We hear the phrase “state’s rights” in discussions about the civil war (from people who can’t seem to live with our very bloody, dark past). It’s something that still comes up in political conversations today. I personally find it frustrating because people are usually talking about the civil rights of human beings when they utter that phrase. Whitehead takes the idea of state’s rights and sort of runs with it. Each state that Cora stops in is almost like it’s own country. They have their own ways of dealing with slaves and former slaves, some of which are truly disturbing and probably not far from the truth. I’m not sure “state’s rights” is what was on Whitehead’s mind when he went this direction, but it’s what came to my mind.

I’ve never had much of a stomach for cruelty, but there’s something about the hatred and disregard for human life that is displayed in this book that makes me sick to my stomach. Whitehead is straight-forward and unflinching in his portrayal of the U.S. as a slave nation. There is also this hopelessness woven into the narrative that I think sheds light on how fresh the wounds of slavery are. It was difficult and beautiful and important. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish processing it.

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