What if the U.S. Civil War had been averted by compromise? That’s the world “Underground Airlines” is set in. It’s the present day, but slavery is still legal in four southern states – the “hard four”. The U.S. is a pariah nation, and the Federal government aggressively hunts down fugitive slaves before the abolitionists in the Underground Airlines can help them escape to Canada. Our protagonist, Victor, is a skilled slave-hunter, and a black man who was born into slavery himself. The book details his pursuit of Jackdaw, an escaped peeb (Person Bound to Labor).
Victor’s mysterious handler at the U.S. Marshals Service drives him and the plot forward, and the book’s interest is sustained throughour. We gradually discover more about the world, Victor, Jackdaw, and learn (as with most thrillers) that this is no ordinary case.
The premise is interesting, but has a few flaws. The compromise is established by a constitutional amendment that declares itself unamendable. It seems like this should not work, though, to be fair, the protagonist remarks as such. (“impossible, illegal – childish, even, like the child who wishes for infinite wishes. And yet it has worked, so far.”)
The novel is written in first person, making info dumps of history a little awkward, as if part of your interior monologue were “Florida had been the key to the 2000 election, and a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling called it for Bush. Gore accepted the result, and …”
More seriously, the U.S. outside the hard four is no picnic, but still unrealistically progressive. For example, a black man and a white woman are able to rent a hotel room together in the South just fifty miles from a slave state with only minor difficulty – surely a blind spot on the author’s part. There is racial injustice, but not much more than our own world. The author is partly making the point that our world still has the scars of slavery, but in part he does not fully come to grips with his world, which should be at least as harsh as 1950s America.
Should you buy this book? White authors with black protagonists leave themselves open to charges of cultural appropriation. Whether you buy that or not, in this case the protagonist is generally believable. The problem here lies with the unrealistically soft setting. Not all white writers would make this mistake, but no black one would.
Will you enjoy this book? The author was influenced by “The Man in the High Castle” and “Invisible Man”, and if you like those books, then you will like this one. The audiobook narration by William DeMeritt is excellent, skillfully capturing the voices of many characters, including Victor’s several aliases.
The author, Ben Winters, has also written “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina”, as well as “The Last Policeman” trilogy, set in a world where the Earth is about to be destroyed by an asteroid. He is writing the pilot script for a TV adaptation of “Underground Airlines”.