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Friday, November 11, 2016

GATEWAY to FREEDOM: THE HIDDEN HISTORY of the UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (audiobook) by Eric Foner



Published in January of 2015 by HighBridge
Read by J. D. Jackson
Duration: 9 hours, 3 minutes
Unabridged

I am torn by this audiobook. On the one hand, I am absolutely fascinated by Civil War, including all of the controversies leading up to it. On the other hand, this audiobook has real issues, including some stretches of tedious writing and stumbles from the reader.


Eric Foner. Photo by Luath.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about this book is the way that the title of the book does not really describe the book. The title, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, implies it is about the Underground Railroad across the country. Instead, this book is exclusively about the Underground Railroad's activity in New York City. Other locations are mentioned only in relation to how they tie in to the story of the Underground Railroad in New York City.

His decision to make the title so inclusive while making the actual book so exclusive is either a clever ruse by the marketing team of his publisher or, F
oner,  a lifelong resident of New York City, having lived outside of the city for only small stretches of his life, has forgotten that there is a massive country attached to his beloved city that is a part of America as well. The world does not stop at the Hudson River.

New York City was a tepid supporter of the Underground Railroad, at best. Its ties to the South were quite strong since so much Southern shipping went through New York City's ports and so many of its bankers financed Southern plantations and factories. While the country was slowly sliding towards Civil War, slavery did not seem so outrageous to many New Yorkers because they could remember when slavery was legal in New York state. Despite those ties and the legacy of slavery, it was also where two of the country's leading anti-slavery organizations put their home offices.

Foner does an excellent job of providing lots of facts about New York City's Underground Railroad infrastructure. His research is impressive. Along the way, especially in the first one-third of the audiobook, this powerful story often gets bogged down with long lists of names and groups, most of which are not particularly meaningful to understanding the story. I would have skimmed over those passages if I had been reading the book, but as a listener of the audiobook version I was just stuck listening. Plus, as a listener I kept noticing how many times that Foner overused the word "absconded" when describing a slave's attempt to run for his or her freedom - I almost started a tally sheet. 

Once we get into the meat of the book, the story gets more interesting because Foner (finally) starts to let the amazing stories of escape take center stage. Everybody who was anybody in the movement on the East Coast went through New York City at some point and these tales are an amazing testament to human courage in the face of evil.

The narration was also a weakness. It shouldn't have been because J. D. Jackson is an award winning audiobook reader many times over. His voice is a velvet smooth bass but he has multiple mispronounced words and odd pauses at unnatural places in sentences - so many that I found him to be distracting and he detracted from the overall experience rather than enhancing it. I have reviewed over 340 audiobooks and this one was one of my few bad experiences with a reader.

In the end, the solid information is hurt by a combination of a misleading title, tedious story-telling and a poor listening experience. 

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Gateway to Freedom.

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