Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters

undergroundairlineTitle: Underground Airlines

Author: Winters, Ben H. (Author’s Website)

Genre: Alternative history, dystopia

Bibliographic: Mulholland Books, 336 pages, Hardcover List Price $26.00, Audiobook List Price $24.55, Audiobook CD List Price $40.00, ISBNs 9780316261241, 9780316268622

Publication Date: July 5, 2016

Rating: ★★★★★/♥♥♥♥♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Complex characters, intricately plotted, fast-paced, atmospheric, disturbing, dramatic, thought-provoking, compelling, stylistically complex

Why I picked it up: I wanted to read an alternate history, and I was intrigued by this one because it looked depressingly similar to the events going on in the news.

S.I.A.S.: It’s 2016, and the Underground Airlines are still helping slaves escape from the South — and it’s Victor’s job to find them.

Summary: Victor — not his real name — is an undercover agent working for the U.S. Marshals as an enforcer of the Fugitive Persons Act. His job is to find “peebs” (short for “persons bound to labor,” or P.B.s) who have escaped into the north, so that they can be returned to their owners in “the hard four:” the four Southern states where, as of 2016, slavery is still legal. He’s in Indianapolis now on the trail of a man named Jackdaw who has escaped from a cotton company in Alabama, but he’s having a little bit of trouble with this case. He started his investigation by meeting with the priest who everyone says works with the Underground Airline, spinning a story about his need to rescue his wife, but the priest claims to have no idea what he’s talking about. He starts poking around anyway, but the morning after his meeting he wakes up with a (black) police officer in his room, who overheard his story and wants to help. Using the information he gains from the officer and his contacts on the Airline, Victor does eventually track down Jackdaw. It turns out that this isn’t a standard case at all, and in order to get to the bottom of things he will have to go even deeper undercover, down into the heart of the South itself.

While this is going on, Victor is making the acquaintance of a white lady named Martha who is staying in his hotel with her biracial son Lionel. She is in desperate need of money, because she wants to buy information about Lionel’s father, an escaped slave who was recaptured. When Victor reveals a piece of his true identity to her, she agrees to accompany him to Alabama and pose as his owner, in order to get her information and help him fulfill his duties.

Evaluation:  This book blew me away.

I was a little bit nervous about reading it, as a white lady reading a book written by a white man telling the story of a black man dealing directly with American racism. I knew there was some controversy about it, where people weren’t sure if this was really Mr. Winters’s story to tell, and I do think that that’s a valid question that needs to be discussed. However, I thought the characters were very well-developed and their actions made rational sense within what we know of them. Victor, in particular, is complex and multi-layered — the author has clearly put a great deal of thought into what might encourage a black man to become an enforcer of the fugitive slave law, and what consequences he would need hanging over his head. Martha was also a more sophisticated character than I expected, given the way we first meet her (stealing food from a hotel breakfast buffet), and the different ways she reacts in different situations are totally believable.

The world-building is also very good, with just enough background information given to show exactly how this world is different from the real one. In the book, President-Elect Lincoln was assassinated and the horror of that event brought the nation back together: the states that had seceded rejoined the union, and in order to keep them from leaving again the Constitution was amended to say that no federal law would ever be able to eliminate slavery. This law has been strengthened and amended over the years, and eventually most states did give up slavery (there was a big surge around the 1960s, when the prominent abolitionist Dr. Martin Luther King drew extra attention to the movement, but that died when he was assassinated). Things are explained as if they were perfectly logical and, as always seems to be the case for me with dystopia or alternate history, I wanted more about how the world had gotten to be the way it was (which is not to say that the story needed it).

I listened to this book as an audiobook, and the narrator (William DeMeritt) is phenomenal. The best moment, for me, was when he voiced the lawyer; he really did sound like an ancient, sleepy, half-drunk, white man from Alabama. He also handled a variety of women’s voices very well, which can sometimes be difficult. His range was great and I already bought the only other audiobook he’s narrated, without having any idea what it might be about.

I would recommend this book unhesitatingly to anyone interested in literary fiction, African-American fiction, race issues, alternate history, or anyone complaining about the length of the holds list for The Underground Railroad.

Significance: This book is a little bit controversial, for lots of valid reasons, but it still does have an interesting point to make about the status of race in American society today. Plus it’s always nice to see an alternate history book that isn’t about Nazis.

Readalikes: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead11/22/63, by Stephen KingWelcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Underground Airlines tells a story about a black American’s experience, yet was written by a white author. Why, in this case, does the author’s race matter? Is this his story to tell? Why or why not?
  2. Why does Victor behave the way he does? Do his choices seem authentic to you?
  3. How is American society as presented in the novel similar to real American society today? How is it different?
  4. Do you agree with Victor, that societal change is impossible? Why or why not?

Lists and Awards: None.

Professional Reviews:  Kirkus. Publishers Weekly. Slate. Washington Post. NPR.

Leave a Reply