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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Mulholland Books, 336 pages, $26

Ben H. Winters has already written a knock-out series about The Last Policeman in a potentially apocalyptic future. He further bends and mashes expectations by writing a story about an alternate history in which slavery is still active (and legislatively protected) in the United States. Wowser!

“Victor” is a black man, but as he notes frequently there are many shades (and attitudes) of black. What does being black mean to him? He uses fake names and moves around a lot. He has a mysterious background and a mysterious purpose. Four states in the South are allowed to have slaves, and it’s not just slaves, it’s corporate, institutionalized slavery to the nth degree. If a slave escapes to anywhere in the other states, he or she is hunted down, taken back down south, and usually put to work on horrible off-shore rigs as punishment. Where does Victor fit into this narrative?

We soon find out that Victor is an agent of the U.S. Marshals Service, the governmental organization tasked with locating escaped slaves. Victor executes his job with cunning efficiency. His new project involves finding a slave named Jackdaw.

He has established himself in Indianapolis as a meek ex-slave looking for his wife still in captivity at a corporate mining facility in order to gain access to the escape network, known as the Underground Airlines, a modernization of the Underground Railway. The safe haven goal is, of course, Canada. In Indianapolis, Victor meets people who will be critical to his mission: a timid-appearing priest, a swaggering black cop, and a white woman with a young bi-racial son.

As part of his mission, Victor eventually must make his way into the slave-holding South, a region that holds bad memories for him of his own time as a slave. (Sorry, if that appears to be a spoiler.)

It isn’t just the innovative storyline that Winters (a Caucasian) presents but also his ability to fully inhabit the first-person viewpoint of Victor. Winters does a great job depicting Victor’s increasing stress and inability to shut out his competing thoughts over his moral obligations.

This is a thriller, but it’s not a typical thriller. This is a detective novel, but it’s certainly not a typical detective novel. It’s a social statement, an invective against racism, a plea for humanity. And, bonus, it’s well written.

MBTB star!

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