Wednesday, October 26, 2016
"Underground Airlines" by Ben H. Winters
I found Ben H. Winter’s Underground Airlines absolutely terrifying and thought provoking; Winters has combined a tension-filled “adventure” story with sardonic commentary on race relations in America. Underground Airlines exists in an alternative history of the U.S., one in which slavery was not eradicated but rather continues in the “Hard Four”: the Southern states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and the Carolinas (combined as one state). The main character, “Victor” (we don’t learn his real name), is an escaped slave turned fugitive-slave hunter. He does his job with brutal efficiency, avoiding thinking about the number of fellow slaves (209, he repeats quietly, as a self-reproaching aside) he has returned to slavery, all in the name of keeping himself free. The novel follows Victor on the trail of Jackdaw, as escaped slave with an odd file, and whose case goes deeper than originally appears.
The novel straddles the worlds of thriller and social commentary so that, even though both elements are well-done, you’re often wanting more. In fact, I think I could have read an entire book purely on speculation of what our country would look like today without the abolition of slavery. There are hints to our position within the world stage (a country sanctioned for human rights violations) or the way in which our economy would suffer and thrive from continued slave labor. More significantly, Winters explores how our American psyche would have to adjust to continue to allow such an atrocity into the modern era. The answer is widespread, tacit hypocrisy: I disapprove of slavery, so I’ll ignore it and pretend I’m not quietly benefiting from it. All characters, from Victor to the abolitionist priest Father Barton, get such psychological scrutiny, suggesting that while slavery is evil, people are ambiguous. And in that ambiguity, people are able to justify most any action.
There are some parts that feel somewhat underserved, particularly the convenient character of Martha. She’s described as a hot mess at the beginning of the novel, but she then becomes incredibly assertive and put-together, capable of pulling off a high-stakes heist of sorts with Ocean’s Eleven-level efficiency. Her relationship with Victor also felt too broad even though they ultimately put complete trust in each other.
But the flaws are relatively minor and don’t detract from the book’s effectiveness. It’s the kind of book that calls out for discussion for its reflection on our past and observations about our present.