First published in 2016
My rating: 3.5 out of 5
The Short Of It:
"Underground Airlines" is an intense speculative fiction novel that imagines the Civil War never happened. It was an interesting read, but it did have some flaws.
The Long Of It:
Ben H. Winters' novel paints a horrifyingly altered version of present day America: the Civil War never took place, and slavery is still legal in four states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Carolina.
The main character is Victor, a former slave who now works off the books for the U.S. Marshals Service to hunt down and recapture escaped slaves, and he is very, very good at it. But if you suspect he didn't take the job because he wanted to, you'd be right -- and he struggles daily with his lost identity and the unfortunate direction his life has gone in. He is a man utterly conflicted.
When the book opens, Victor has just arrived in Indianapolis, and it turns out to be the place things are going to change for him -- for better or worse. The case he's working has some strange inconsistencies, Victor's handler is acting strangely, and Victor learns there's something "special" about the slave he's supposed to be tracking. About halfway through the plot really picks up, and the story barrels -- with some edge-of-your-seat action -- toward a couple shocking and disturbing revelations.
Winters has written a novel that's at once interesting speculative fiction, thriller, and commentary on race in real-life America today. I was both revolted and fascinated by the alternative history aspect: why didn't the Civil War happen, how did slavery hang on, when did various states abolish the practice, trade agreements between the north, the south and other countries, the tense and tenuous relationship between the Hard Four and the rest of the country, the way free blacks are treated (not great, unsurprisingly) and the mechanics and logistics of 21st century slavery.
And Winters gives us a clear look at what this modern-day slavery would be like, shown through flashbacks to Victor's childhood as a Person Bound to Labor at a cattle farm and processing plant. Showing the disgusting atrocities of slavery is definitely necessary to the book, though I do think Winters was unnecessarily heavy-handed in describing the slaughterhouse gore. Let's just say beef didn't make it on the dinner menu this week.
I also had a hard time feeling a connection to Victor. He's not an unlikable guy, but -- even as the story is barreling toward a conclusion that could easily leave Victor dead or, perhaps worse, returned to slavery -- I really never cared what happened to him. I was more interested in the dynamics of the imagined world. The writing was a bit awkward at times; maybe that's part of the reason for the disconnect I had with the protagonist.
Winters did do a decent job subtly inserting thoughts about race issues in (real-life) America, the hot topic in books this year, with lines like:
"Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say Will you look at those animals? That's what kind of people those people are. And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation."
It was definitely a thought-provoking read -- and interesting that some of the white-black relations aren't really that different now than they were in the imagined world where slavery still exists. I did find it surprising to glance at the back flap and discover the author is white. In truth, it felt a little strange to be reading a book told in first person by an oppressed, victimized former slave set in a world where all black people are looked at with suspicion and distrust -- penned by a white guy. It seems like slightly dangerous territory for a white author, but I do commend Winters for his effort. It's clear he thinks our real-life race situation needs to change.