Series: Underground Airlines (7/2016)
Plot Type: A genre blend of alternate history, thriller, and noir detective mystery
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—1; Dark Humor—2
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 himself—to his annoyance and unease—automatically 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).
I don't want to give the impression that this is a dry, fact-filled book about the ills of modern society. No...it 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.
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 incomplete—the 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 policeman—also part of the group—defies 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.
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 Amazon.com page where you can click on either the cover art or the "Listen" button.
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 TRILOGY—The 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.