Underground Airlines (Hardcover)
Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters
Reviewed by Ellie Scott
If you are a lover of books, you have likely read the National Book Award Winner and the Pulitzer Prize Winning novel of this year, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Without a doubt, it’s an exceptional book. But you may have missed the similarly titled novel from Ben H. Winters: Underground Airlines, an astonishing work of speculative fiction that impressed me and shaped my view of American industry in ways that other books often fail to.
Underground Airlines is set in the present day with smartphones and GPS, but with one major difference: The Civil War never happened, and slavery still exists in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Carolina (the Hard Four). The novel, hailed by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan as “an extraordinary work of alternate history” follows the story of Victor, a black man who has struck a deal with the US Marshals and works as a bounty hunter and slave catcher. In this version of America, Victor (one of his many aliases) trails escaped slaves and dons several identities in an attempt to infiltrate the Underground Airlines and trick the people who work them into exposing their network of local abolitionist cells, thereby sabotaging efforts to move people to freedom.
As Victor pursues his most recent case, an escaped slave by the name of Jackdaw, the world begins to shift and suspicious details of the case cause him to question the work he’s actually doing. Tormented by the traitorous nature of his job description, threated by the surfacing of his own violent past in the slaughterhouses of the Hard Four, and unmoored by a labyrinthine pursuit through churches, hospitals, drainage tunnels and even back into the plantations of the Deep South, Victor strikes up an unlikely partnership with a struggling single white mom, who believes Victor to be an agent of the Airlines, rather than someone working to undermine their cause.
Ben Winters, author of The Last Policeman Trilogy, knows how to write a suspenseful thriller, with crosses and double crosses, espionage, and mystery. But he also makes profound social commentary through complex and textured allegory. Though slavery still exists in this reimagined world, America looks not so very different from the one we experience today. In Winters’s telling, the US is not the global superpower it is today because it has been sanctioned by other global governments for cruelty practices. And so it exports mainly to the Asian market. In the lobby of one corporate plantation, Garments of the Greater South, Inc. happy Asian children kick a soccer ball in breezy cotton clothes hand sewn and American grown by persons bound to labor. Without being heavy handed, Winters calls out the consumerist allegiance to cheaply made goods, and portrays a world of ugliness that is all too easy to avert our eyes from.
Ann Patchett has this to say about Underground Airlines: “This one kept me up at night and changed the way I saw the world once I was finished.” The reading of this book did the same for me. I look forward to a follow up from Ben Winters.— Ellie Scott
July 2016 Indie Next List
“Winters has managed to aim a giant magnifying glass at the problem of institutionalized racism in America in a way that has never been done before. This Orwellian allegory takes place in the present day but in a United States where Lincoln was assassinated before he ever became president, the Civil War never took place, and slavery still exists in four states, known as the Hard Four. In agile prose that manages to convey the darkest of humors, Winters tackles the most sensitive of issues such as the motivations of misguided white liberals involved in racial politics, the use of racial profiling, and the influence of racism on the very young. Underground Airlines is the most important book of the summer. Read it.”
— Kelly Justice (E), The Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA
NOMINATED FOR BEST HARDCOVER NOVEL BY THE ITW THRILLER AWARDS
A FINALIST FOR THE CHAUTAUQUA PRIZE
A New York Times Bestseller; a Goodreads Choice finalist; named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR, Slate, Publishers Weekly, Hudson Bookseller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kirkus Reviews, AudioFile Magazine, and Amazon
It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy Meals. Save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred.
A gifted young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He's got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called "the Hard Four." On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn't right--with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself.
A mystery to himself, Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines. Tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he's hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won't reveal the extraordinary stakes of Jackdaw's case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child who may be Victor's salvation. Victor himself may be the biggest obstacle of all--though his true self remains buried, it threatens to surface.
Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country's arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost.
Underground Airlines is a ground-breaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we'd like to believe.
About the Author
Ben H. Winters is the author of, most recently, World of Trouble, the concluding book in the Last Policeman trilogy. The second book, Countdown City, was an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction. The Last Policeman was the recipient of the 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America; it was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate.