Book Review: Underground Airlines

Undergound Airlines
By Ben H. Winters

Not My Edition:
Hardcover, 322 pages
2016, Mulholland Books
ISBN: 9780316261241

Victor works for the US Marshal Service tracking down slaves who have escaped from the Hard Four – the four states where slavery continues in modern America. While tracking his current target, a young man named Jackdaw, Victor finds himself embroiled in a thick plot surrounding Jackdaw and the secrets the anti-slavery supporters are working hard to divulge to the rest of America; secrets that the US government is working hard to keep under wraps.

This is an alternate history/speculative fiction take on what our country might look like today if the Civil War had never happened. If you’ve been following my reading habits for a little while, you’ll know this is not my typical genre or subject matter. But someone here on WordPress (sadly, I forget who!) did a review for this book that put it on my radar. During one of my recent trips to the library, Underground Airlines was front and center on the new arrivals shelf, so I decided it was the right time to give it a shot.

I’m glad I picked up this book. As disturbing and uncomfortable as the subject matter is, I was hooked from the beginning and found this to be a very enjoyable, thought-provoking read. Winters (like myself, you may know him from Pride, Prejudice and Zombies – an utterly different style of writing than Airlines, might I add) has created a convincing and complex character with Victor. This is a man who was once a slave and after escaping and earning his freedom, he is essentially blackmailed by the US Marshals into hunting down and capturing escaped slaves in order to someday earn his own freedom back.

In order to infiltrate various parts of the Airlines (the modern terminology for the Underground Railroad, though it involves very little flying), Victor must wear many masks and play many parts. As the story goes on, we slowly see more of who Victor really is, though we never truly know him, as there are many parts he keeps secret, including his true name. For me, Victor was what carried the story and while I’m speaking from a white perspective on a book written by a white man, from the perspective of a black person, I think his character was incredibly well-crafted.

In this universe there are four states where slavery is still legal and though the rest of the country is purportedly against the act, they are bound to assist in returning Persons Bound to Labor or “Peebs” (the new terminology for slaves) to their owners. There are lots of other little “compromises” that the free states allow in order for slavery to still function, essentially giving the Hard Four their support.

I don’t often describe the books I read as “important,” but I think I would say that about this book. One of the details that really hit me about the world Winters created was the skin tone chart issued by the US Marshal Service – they’ve created 172 skin tones for African Americans, used in the profiles and descriptions of Persons Bound to Labor. To break down a person into such a technical, soulless description was disturbing. Victor has memorized this chart and often finds himself classifying any African Americans he comes across:

“Late-summer honey, warm tone, #76 – I, myself, am moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41.”

The cover quote describes this book as “tragically plausible” and I agree. If you’re at all interested in alternate history, or even a semi-unreliable narrator and an action-filled plot, I would recommend picking up this book. It’s good to step outside your comfort zone now and then!

You can visit Ben’s website here.

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