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.