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UNDERGROUND AIRLINES
by Ben Winters
Mulholland, July 2016
336 pages
$26.00
ISBN: 0316261246


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In the month this book was published, the wife of the American president said something no first lady has ever acknowledged. In a speech watched by millions she told the nation she wakes up every morning in a house built by slaves. This is an aspect of modern-day America that most Americans either don't know or have managed to forget. Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates have been insistently reminding us lately: the American dream conceals the fact that America's wealth was created through an economic system that depended on owning people, that this history persists in unequal justice and uneven opportunity, that the stain of slavery is still on us. Ben Winters wants us to think about that in his new alternative history in which a modern-day invisible man tracks down fugitive slaves in a nation that never fought a civil war or abandoned the Peculiar Institution.

Victor is one of those hard-bitten noir detectives who reflects on the darkness in the world he inhabits, but he doesn't pretend to have the heroic qualities that Raymond Chandler attributed to the detective in his classic essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." There's no honor or justice in these mean streets. Victor's good at his job locating "people bound to labor" in the bureaucratic language of this alternate America who have escaped from one of the four southern states that saw their entitlement to own human beings inscribed in irrevocable amendments to the US Constitution. He also hates himself for doing his job so well, though we come to learn how little choice he really has as he pursues a mysterious refugee named Jackdaw. That pursuit takes him into the "freed man towns" of the north and across the border into the "hard four" where plantations have been replaced by corporations.

This is a fascinating and suspenseful thriller, but if you think of fiction not as escape from reality but rather escape into a fictional world, be aware this one's very dark, and your guide is not easy company like the hero of Winters' apocalyptic near-future novel, THE LAST DETECTIVE. Victor is too aware to believe that doing his job will give his life meaning. This alternative world is also a hall of mirrors. The labor conditions our narrator describes are not that different than what immigrant workers experience at factory farms. The economic rationale for putting up with slavery sure, it's bad, but you can't beat those prices is the same one we use as we buy goods made in countries with low wages and harsh labor conditions. Just as we settle into the fun of being somewhere strange and different, we catch sight of our own reflection.

Ben Winters isn't the first writer to imagine an alternate history for America in which slavery persists, and it's hard to convey its everyday violence more viscerally than Octavia Butler did in her time-travel novel KINDRED. But he's done a good job of treading that fine line between the inconceivable injustice of owning human beings with a reader's need for the coherence of story, making sure that when we escape into this one we can't really get away.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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