Only the most recent posts pop up on the HOME page. For searchable lists of titles/series reviewed on this Blog, click on one of the Page Tabs above. On each Page, click on the series name to go directly to my review.

AUTHOR SEARCH lists all authors reviewed on this Blog. CREATURE SEARCH groups all of the titles/series by their creature types. The RATINGS page explains the violence, sensuality, and humor (V-S-H) ratings codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their Ratings. The PLOT TYPES page explains the SMR-UF-CH-HIS codes found at the beginning of each Blog review and groups all titles/series by their plot types. On this Blog, when you see a title, an author's name, or a word or phrase in pink type, this is a link. Just click on the pink to go to more information about that topic.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

NEW NOVEL! Ben H. Winters: "Underground Airlines"

Author:  Ben H. Winters
Series:  Underground Airlines (7/2016)
Plot Type:  A genre blend of alternate history, thriller, and noir detective mystery  
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality1; Dark Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Mulholland Books (Little, Brown and Company)

                        PUBLISHER'S BLURB                          
     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 rightwith 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 an 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 allthough 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. 

     The key premise in the novel's mythology is that Lincoln was assassinated (in Indianapolis) in 1861—before his inauguration to the presidency, before the Civil War broke out. In the initial shock over the assassination, citizens and politicians alike were so shaken that they came to a compromise in which five states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Carolina—a single state combining North and South Carolina) would be allowed to buy, sell, and own slaves within their borders and that the 18th Amendment would be passed with the ironclad stipulation that no future amendment or congressional action can "abolish or interfere with slavery in any of the States by whose laws it is, or may be, allowed or permitted." Later, Georgia voted to outlaw slavery, so that leaves the "Hard Four" as the remaining slave states.

     In the modern plantations within the Hard Four, the white bosses have honed their skills over the years and have designed a highly efficient system of slavery that relies heavily on technology (particularly for security) and pop psychology (slaves are forced to sing songs pledging their loyalty to their owners). All slaves wear a corporate brand tattooed at the base of their necks above the collarbone. 

     Most of the free states are Clean Hands states, with laws prohibiting hotels and restaurants from serving anything exported from the Hard Four, but the big corporations find ways to bypass those laws, and—unsurprisingly—corruption abounds. Many countries around the world have signed agreements to block imports from the Hard Four, but others have no problem with accepting consumer goods produced through slave labor.

     Although black citizens living outside the Hard Four are legally free, their freedom is not without limits. For example, every free black citizen must carry papers that prove his or her free status because under the Fugitive Person laws, U.S. marshals serve as slave hunters and are required to capture any black person without the proper papers. (This brings to mind Arizona's S.B. 1070, which gives police the right to stop people without cause and ask for identification that proves their immigration status.) All escaped slaves who are caught without the proper papers are returned to their owners in the South. Every American city has one or more Freedtowns. Some of these are neat little neighborhoods, but many more are crisscrossed with pot-holed streets that are lined by decrepit buildings. (Some of the descriptions reminded me of photographs of Detroit taken during the recent Great Recession.) 

     Winters has created a marvelously disturbing mythology, with every horrifying element painstakingly worked out. How's this for a stomach-churning detail: The federal marshals' service field guide includes a pigmentation taxonomy of 172 varietals of African American skin tones. A fugitive slave named 
Jackdaw is "late-summer honey, warm tone, #76." The book's hero, a slave hunter named Victor, is "moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #141," and he finds himselfto his annoyance and uneaseautomatically classifying every black person her meets. In an example of how history is different in this alternate America, instead of a war in Vietnam in the 1960s, America had to deal with the Texas war of secession. And Harper Lee's famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird," is a story about an "Alabama runner hiding in a small Tennessee town, [and] the courageous white lawyer who saves him from a vicious racist deputy marshal." And then there are the alternate lives of famous people, like Jesse Owens, who, in this world, defected to the Soviet Union after winning his Olympic medals in Berlin. And James Brown, who had been part of a slave band touring the free states when he snuck out of his hotel room and escaped to Canada and who now tours the world's concert stages (but not in America).

     Winters gradually inserts the various elements of this dystopian mythology into the narration, building a horrific picture of a society that has many of the same characteristics of the one we live in today. Take, for example, the unspeakable horrors of the slaves' lives. And then, take a look at the conditions endured by factory workers in Indonesia and China in our own world. You may not call it slavery, but I'm sure that they would have a different opinion. Yet, we wear clothes and buy colorful electronic gadgets made in Asian sweatshops and never give a second thought to the horrendous lives of people whose hard work made them possible.

     I don't want to give the impression that this is a dry, fact-filled book about the ills of modern society. is a compelling thriller—a noir mystery driven by the narration of a fully realized character who takes us on an incredible journey. Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down. 

                        MY REVIEW                          
     This novel is currently at the very top of my "Best Books" list for 2016. Winters has created an unforgettable main charactera man whose sardonic outlook, fierce determination, deep anguish, and tenacious resilience will remain with me for a long, long time. "Victor" (fake name) is a free black man who remains free only so long as he continues to hunt down fugitive peebs (aka PB, Persons Bound to Labor—a euphemism for slaves). To ensure his cooperation, the government has inserted a GPS chip at the base of his spine near his brain stem. "They...told me I would not feel it, but I could feel it, I always felt it, I always heard it, though it made no sound. When I was too quiet for too long I heard it singing in me: humming, taunting, burning. A hook. An anchor. A leash."

     As a child, Victor was himself a peeb on a poultry plantation, shoveling manure and working ankle deep in blood on the kill floor, and his memories of those years continue to haunt him, no matter how hard he tries to repress them. 

     Victor is good at his work and takes advantage of the perks that come with his job. He travels the country in a nice car with a trunk full of disguises, criminal tools, sets of papers that establish multiple identities, and enough cash to stay in decent hotels and eat in nice restaurants. Victor enjoys his semblance of a free life, but the guilt of what he is doing eats away at him:  “That’s the problem with doing the devil’s work. It can be pretty satisfying, now and again." At times, Victor feels as if he has lost himself within his various identities, unsure as to who the real "Victor" really is (and we never do learn his true name).

     The plot centers on Victor's search for a fugitive slave called Jackdaw (not his real name, but his "service," or slave name). Victor has come to Indianapolis to infiltrate the Underground Airlines organization, the metaphorical name for a group that has put together a loosely woven network of like-minded individuals, some who go into the Hard Four for rescues and others who hide the escapees as they wend their way to safety in Canada.

     The deeper Victor gets into his search for Jackdaw, the more this case seems wrong to him. His government handler, Mr. Bridge, is behaving strangely, and Jackdaw's intelligence file is incompletethe first time this has ever happened. Also, the local Airlines folks are nothing like he expected them to be. In fact, when Victor poses as a free black man searching for his slave wife, the priest in charge of the Airlines turns him down, but a local policemanalso part of the groupdefies the priest and offers to help Victor. The early chapters spool through a series of seemingly unconnected people and events, but don't be fooled. Winters is a masterful writer who has meticulously crafted a story with an intricate plot that pulls the reader along on a suspenseful, dangerous journey that careens around one stunning twist and turn after another. Pay attention to the details because Winters never includes a person or event that doesn't add  another dimension to his story. 

     Although a female character turns up as an important supporting character, this is not a romance. Martha is a young white woman who is on a search of her own, accompanied by her young biracial son, Lionel ("like the trains"). The two become friends and allies, but not lovers, because Martha's heart is with her son's father, a recaptured slave (but, thankfully, not recaptured by Victor).

     There is so much more that I'd like to tell you about this book, especially Victor's sardonic, noir-detective descriptions of elements of modern culture and his descriptions of how he changes his behavior according to his current role and purpose: "I tilted my head a certain way I had, and I grinned a soft grin of mine, narrowed my eyes in a way I knew put light in them and crinkles at their corners." A scene in which he tricks a receptionist into giving him information allows us to watch Victor in action as he learns everything he needs to know about that woman: her boredom with her job, her pride in her new manicure, her efficiency, her kind heart, her trust in humanity, her sense of right and wrong—all played out to great effect in a gem of a seven-page scene.

     Victor is one of the most memorable literary characters I have ever met. He has lived a life filled with hardship and guilt, but has learned—on the surface, at least—to deal with his demons. In his pursuit of Jackdaw and in the adventures that follow, though, Victor's nightmares force him to remember things that he has buried deep within his unconscious for many years. Victor has always believed that because of his own actions, he does not deserve to be truly free and that his slave captures (more than 200) have doomed him to eternal hellfire. "I pretend to myself that I don't remember the names, the details, when in fact I do. I did and I do—I remember all their names." For so many years, he has been sure that redemption is impossible for him, but is that true? Is he willing to attempt to redeem himself at the risk of being forcibly returned to slavery? Is he strong enough to take a risk? I highly recommend that you read this book and give yourself an unforgettable experience as you discover the answers to those questions.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Underground Airlines on the novel's page where you can click on either the cover art or the "Listen" button.

                         THE CONTROVERSY                         
     This novel has created a firestorm of controversy, primarily because Winters is a white man writing in the voice of a black former slave on the subject of race in America (although the book is much more than that). Commentary on the issue—pro and con—can be found all over the Internet and in the Twitter universe. I would urge you to read the book before you read the reviews because, truly, this is a magnificent novel. If you do succumb to curiosity and read some of the backlash writings, please click HERE to read one written by Alex Brown, a black writer who (unlike many of the protesters) actually read the book and enjoyed it just as much as I did: "I didn’t just love this book; I felt it. Victor tunneled into my brain and heart. It’s been almost a week since I finished it and my thoughts keep turning back to Victor’s ordeal. Few books have burrowed under my skin like that, but this is definitely one of them." Also, click HERE (Internet post) and HERE (podcast) for two responses from Winters. Winters also posted a response to a Slate essay questioning his intentions in writing this book. (Winters' response is included at the end of the essay.) Click HERE to read Winters' list of books he read as he wrote Underground Airlines.

                        ABOUT THE AUTHOR                          
     Ben H. Winters is the author of Underground Airlines (July, 2016) and THE LAST POLICEMAN TRILOGYThe Last Policeman (2012), Countdown City (2013), and World of Trouble (2014)—for which he received the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction, a Macavity Award nomination and an Anthony Award Nomination, along with placement in numerous "Best Of" lists, including on Amazon, Slate, and NPR. The trilogy has been published in 14 languages so far. Ben's other books include Bedbugs, Android Karenina, the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and the middle-grade novels The Mystery of the Everything and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, a Bank Street Best Book of 2011 and an Edgar Award nominee. 

     Ben is also the author of many plays and musicals for children and adults, as well as Literally Disturbed: Tales to Keep You Up at Night, a book of scary poems for kids. He has written for national and local publications including the Chicago Tribune, Slate, and the Huffington Post. 

     He grew up in Maryland, attended Washington University in St. Louis, and currently lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he teaches at Butler University.

No comments:

Post a Comment