Underground Airlines (Ben H. Winters)

Ben H. Winters is one of my favorite authors, hands down.  I feel it necessary to make that point up front, so that (after you finish reading this review) you will feel led to rush to either your local bookstore or online bookseller of choice and pick up his entire oeuvre.

I’m not sure what makes Mr. Winters’ work so incredibly readable to me.  Maybe it’s his gift at creating characters that I care deeply about.  Maybe it’s the topics he’s chosen.  Maybe it’s because I just haven’t happened to find anything he’s written so far that hasn’t resonated with me on a personal level.  I don’t think we can always figure out what it is about our favorite writers that makes them our favorite writers.  Maybe other people can, and I’m just not good at articulating my (undoubtedly magnificent) inner life.  Who knows?

I don’t think I can review this novel without at least mentioning Winters’ The Last Policeman series.  This is a three-book masterpiece, and one of my favorite series from the last ten years.  It centers around the period of time immediately preceding a worldwide apocalyptic event, and the resulting breakdown of society.  Despite most other people sinking into depression (or worse), the widespread ignorance of societal norms, and a vast bleakness ruling the world, Winters’ protagonist is a police officer (obviously) who is unable to accept the idea that none of those things matter any longer.  He continues to try to solve a case, continues to believe that the rule of law still exists, and continues to care about human decency in spite of everything (maybe) coming to an end within months or days.  I love these books.  They speak to the importance of caring about things greater than ourselves, even while horrific things literally greater than ourselves loom over all we’ve ever known.  Buy them, read them, share them, period.

Reading Underground Airlines was scary for me.  Not because of its subject matter, but because it’s been a while since I’ve read anything non-Last Policeman from this author, and because I wanted to like it so much.  As it turns out, I didn’t have to worry–it was fantastic.

The central idea behind this book is a simple one: the U.S. Civil War never happened.  It’s present-day America, and there are still four states (the Hard Four) where slavery is an allowed, legal and accepted practice.  Lincoln was assassinated, and the rest of the states struck a compromise allowing those four states to maintain their status quo.  The title is a reference to the Underground Railroad, only using a more modern mode of transportation.  Our protagonist is an African-American former slave who has been compelled to work undercover with the U.S. Marshalls to find and return other escaped slaves and disrupt the activities of abolitionists and others who feel that slavery is a problem.

Alternate history novels are only as interesting to me as their alternate premise.  It’s difficult for me to sustain my attention to the idea that one obscure general zigged instead of zagging, which caused the entire course of history to be altered.  This book is different–slavery as an institution is something that has almost become shorthand to us.  We know about the hard labor and brutality that came with it, we know about the lack of rights, the cultural and economic systems based upon that labor, and about the sociological undercurrents surrounding non-slave territories that still didn’t do a good job of recognizing freed slaves’ basic personhood.  What we (or me) don’t think much about is what our society might look like now if slavery were still around.  This book goes there, and it was wonderful (if also simultaneously awful).

The last alternate history novel I enjoyed this much was Matt Ruff’s The Mirage, which postulated a world in which the “first world” centers around the Middle East, while the US is largely rural and judged savage by the rest of the planet.  Terroristic acts (such as flying a plane into a famous skyscraper) mostly take the form of Christian militants attacking Muslim institutions of power.  Pick up The Mirage if that thought experiment is as interesting to you as it was to me–you won’t regret it.

But back to Underground Airlines.  How might GPS tracking have impacted the Underground Railroad?  Would non-slave states have divested themselves economically from those areas still using slave labor?  What would a modern-day network devoted to freeing slaves look like?  All of the modern aspects of technology we take for granted make a real difference in a lot of the areas this book explores.

I’m also a real fan of using a former slave as our lens into this world.  He knows exactly how brutal the life of a slave was–he’s lived it.  He knows what he’s sending the escaped slaves back to–he’s been there.  He hates himself and what he’s doing, but still does it because he has no choice.  This isn’t an outsider to the peculiar institution looking in from the outside, this is someone intimately familiar with it.  Which makes it even more horrifying.  There are also some extremely high stakes involved here, and not just for one or two people.

I loved the internal struggles of the protagonist, I loved the glimpses of a modern-day antebellum South, and most of all, I loved thinking about the societal ramifications of a tradition like slavery existing for another 150 years in this country.

This book has intrigue, spycraft, action, deep musings about equality and history, and several plot twists that I had no way of predicting ahead of time.

As of now, Underground Airlines has 4 stars on Amazon (with 181 reviews).

I’m giving it 99 out of 100!  Buy it here.








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