If you’re looking for a book that will send your imagination into overdrive, this is the one. The idea in Underground Airlines is that slavery did not end. Four states — Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi — did not abolish slavery, namely because the Civil War never occurred. The Underground Airlines is much like the Underground Railroad in that it is a network established to help slaves escape. Just as no actual railroads were used to liberate slaves in reality, airplanes are not utilized in this book as a means of emancipation.
Set in our present day, Underground Airlines features a black man named Victor working as a bounty hunter for the government and specializing in tracking down escaped slaves. I won’t reveal why he pursues this troubling work, but know that he has his reasons.
He soon becomes ensnared in a case that unsettles him. Nothing about it seems normal compared to his past cases, and when he finds himself embedded with double-agent police officers, uncompromising priests, and government shadow operatives, he loses all sense of whatever self he’d managed to preserve since his horrific childhood.
Winters impressed me on several fronts with this novel, but particularly because he really thought through what the implications would be of a USA that did not do business with four major states in the South. He created a world very recognizable, but also starkly different. And though he didn’t go into great detail with the small deviations, it was apparent that he knew exactly the backstory behind every off-brand cigarette, every imported Middle-Eastern car, and every alternate Bill passed by Congress. He developed a reality in which Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King met very different ends, a world terrifying to imagine.
Yet, at the same time, Winters introduced a world not quite different enough from our own. Much of the racism and bigotry that is expressed by characters in this book are absolutely touted in our world as well. If anything, I think this book forces us to hold a mirror up to our own society and ask ourselves if we’ve gone far enough with our Bill of Rights, our Constitution, and the long-term effects of the Emancipation Proclamation.
However, though Underground Airlines touches upon several important social issues, it does not preach, it does not lecture, it does not even necessarily seek to enlighten. This book is a thriller, through and through.
In fact, it managed to surprise me from start to finish. Victor proved unpredictable, the story line took several different turns which lead to places I did not anticipate, and it maintained a level of excitement throughout that is very difficult to do.
Of course, in the interest of remaining objective, I must point out a few areas that did not work well for me. My main complaint is that there are many times when unlikely saves occur. Just as it seemed Victor had no hope of survival or escape, something always managed to intercede on his behalf. This is totally in keeping with the genre of the book, but for those looking to it to be something other than a thriller, these moments may be something of a jolt.
Along those lines, while Underground Airlines is quite bold in its premise and obviously intricately contemplated by the author, I would not put too much pressure on the book to be something it isn’t. There are great societal implications for those looking to find them, but the book should not be labeled as a work aiming to progress social cause — it would not be appropriate for social justice classes, for example. It’s not written to serve that sort of purpose.
However, if you’re looking for a smart, well-written, page-turner with a complex plot, I highly recommend Underground Airlines.