Listen up! Audiobook review: The Underground Railroad

Posted May 23

I found audiobooks while weeding. I was maybe 19 and working in my neighbor’s yard. These were still the days of books on tape — audiobooks actually recorded onto cassette tapes that listeners would have to periodically turn over to continue their story. Armed with a pair of gloves, a ball cap and my Walkman, I settled into the sweaty rhythm of weed pulling in the hot summer sun while listening to a dishy British male voice tell me of the lives and exploits of John, Paul, Ringo and George. A passionate fan, I had discovered Hunter Davies’ authorized Beatles biography at my local library and I happily looked forward to each day’s revelation, my own private reading of a swinging world 30 years passed. When I finally finished all 16 tapes, I can still recall how satisfyingly tight the tapes fit into their grimy plastic case.

And that was it; one book and I was hooked. Audiobooks struck me as a resounding slap in the face to the adage "you can’t have your cake and eat it too." I could clean, walk, drive and do any number of semi-mindless tasks and someone would read aloud to me. I felt like a queen followed around by a scholarly courtier.

We can thank smartphones for making audiobook-listening ridiculously easy. In 2016, audiobook sales increased by 24 percent, according to Audio Publishers Association, and showed over 50 percent sales growth in five years. Whether you're an Audible subscriber, stalk your library's Overlook app, or mine any number of the audiobook apps or online options, there’s a good chance you’ve found that being read to is helping revive your love of books — and make those 14-hour car rides bearable.

And so, with all of this in mind, please join us for our monthly audiobook reviews as we invite you to Listen Up!

"The Underground Railroad," by Colson Whitehead, narrated by Bahni Turpin, Random House Audio, 10 hours 43 minutes, $23.95 (f)

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad” follows a simple what if: What if the Underground Railroad of the 19th century was a real railroad — train tracks, locomotives, tunnels and all? With this premise, Whitehead takes readers on a heart-pounding adventure story with a searing moral center.

The novel hooks a pinky in the world of magical realism, but keeps its feet planted firmly, often painfully, in this gritty world.

Cora — no last name and a made-up birthdate — was born and expected to die on her master’s plantation deep in slave-owning Georgia. A third generation slave, Cora's mother escaped from the plantation when Cora was a young girl, and in slave country, runaways represent more than lost property: They are symbols of hope for other would-be escapists. Cora suffers from her fellow slaves’ suspicion, the plantation owner’s resentment, and particularly the pain of her mother’s abandonment.

But listeners soon learn that Cora is a survivor. In a world where white man’s word is law and a plantation owner could kill, beat and molest his slaves with no legal ramifications, Cora’s human self somehow lives larger inside her than her slave self. She may be property, but no master owns her soul.

Invited by a fellow slave named Caesar to risk the underground system, the pair discover a network of trains guarded by white sympathizers who do their best to help runaways escape absolute domination.

There’s no doubt that Whitehead can spin a tale. Cora’s adventures will keep you sitting in your driveway waiting to hear what happens next as her story leaps from Georgia to a South Carolina museum to a North Carolina attic to a utopian Illinois farm, where the hope of a settled, free life seems almost possible.

In 2017, most people don’t need convincing that slavery was and is a pernicious practice, although Whitehead’s book does make it’s daily details shockingly real. But Whitehead seems equally interested in looking at how fears can motivate and entrap.

For fears, Cora’s story reveals, much like hopes and dreams, must be nurtured — and rumors and violence make effective cultivators. Along her journey, she learns that slavery comes in more forms than she knew and wonders, as one who fights so hard for her freedom, why white people would give up theirs for the illusion of security. Cora’s fear is a motivating force, sure, but her story is not that of a slave acting in fear of punishment but instead a woman grasping for salvation. Freedom, she reminds readers at one point, is the finest currency of all.

As a listening experience, narrator Bahni Turpin’s warm tone allows listeners to luxuriate in Whitehead’s story. Her characterizations are generally distinct enough that there is little trouble differentiating between characters, and her Cora is particularly vibrant. While Whitehead’s descriptions of slavery’s horrors are not graphic, they are sickening and Turpin moves through them with the determined nonchalance of a bikini waxer — she’s not about to pause as the shock of Cora’s experiences deliver the gut punch Whitehead obviously intended.

As the book comes to a close, listeners, like Cora, may ask themselves just how they plan to spend their pocket full of freedom — and perhaps appreciate a little more just how sweet the air above ground really is.

"The Underground Railroad" contains mature themes, with references to abuse, rape, and murder, although not graphically. Racist language is throughout.


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