“Time makes things worse; bad is faster than good; wickedness is a weed and does not wither on its own — it grows and spreads.”
Imagine that Abe Lincoln was assassinated before the Civil War started and that the North and South, instead of fighting, compromised, drawing up an agreement that allowed slavery to exist in perpetuity in four Southern states. Fast forward to the modern day and imagine that you were a black man in one of those states, that you had escaped your slavery in a cattle slaughterhouse, and had been living a free life in a Northern state for two years. Imagine that the U.S. Marshals Service finally caught you and gave you the choice of going back to the slaughterhouse or working for the Marshals, hunting down escaped slaves like yourself and turning them over to the government.
That is the disturbing premise of Ben H. Winters’ new novel Underground Airlines. Our escaped-slave-turned-slave-hunter is called Victor (he doesn’t know his real name) and when we meet him, he’s working for the Marshals, tracking a man called Jackdaw who escaped from a textile factory. Victor has traced Jackdaw to Indianapolis and, pretending to be the free husband of an enslaved woman, has made contact with a secret abolitionist group known as the Underground Airlines, a modern version of the Underground Railroad. (The Underground Airlines doesn’t actually use airplanes — it’s too hard to stay hidden while flying — they use semi-trucks and delivery vans.)
Victor is fairly certain that the Underground Airlines knows where Jackdaw is, but they are led by Father Barton, a white priest who is rightfully suspicious of Victor’s story. Victor doesn’t have the time he needs to weasel his way into the group because he’s being pressured more than usual from his boss who wants Jackdaw found immediately. Why the rush? Victor beings to suspect that there is something special about Jackdaw’s case and, as he eventually discovers, it may have huge implications for the future of slavery in America.
Underground Airlines is a chilling alternate history thriller that has many ways of making the reader uncomfortable. Most obviously, it’s a reminder of the most shameful parts of American history — slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow. But it’s also a reminder that even today we hang on to some of these ugly elements of our past. For example, when Victor gets pulled over by cops as he’s driving in the “wrong” area, I couldn’t help thinking that the same thing is likely to happen to Victor in our world today. Our country’s laws about equality have continually been progressing since the Civil War, but some of our attitudes and actions haven’t kept up. In Winters’ story, some individuals and companies who claimed to be against slavery but benefited from the system had ways of trying to assuage their guilt, highlighting our constant tendency to bury our heads in the sand instead of being willing to stick our necks out and confront the evil we see.
Another source of gnawing discomfort is, of course, the cognitive dissonance that Victor feels as he maintains his freedom by returning other humans to slavery. The reader, who sees how Victor tenderly treats a homeless mother and child he meets, feels that Victor must be a good man but, if so, how can he do that job? Yet, if he refuses, he goes back to slavery and someone else does his job and it gets done anyway. What are his choices? Victor, who tries to repress his thoughts about his past, is completely aware that he is fooling himself and this makes him a compelling character:
I was a monster, but way down underneath I was good. Wasn’t I? Wasn’t I? Didn’t I have some good part of me, buried deep underground… I was good below it. I was, and I am. Good underground. In the buried parts of me are good things.
This “underground” theme carries through the novel. As Jim cunningly pursues his quarry (who is sometimes literally underground or submerged in other ways), he searches for his own self and the goodness that he hopes is buried inside.
Craftwise, Underground Airlines is a joy to read and to listen to in audiobook format. Victor’s voice is always engaging and it’s beautifully performed by narrator William DeMeritt in Hachette Audio’s version (8.25 hours long, listen to a sample here). The pace of the story is fast, never letting up, and the plot twists and turns in unexpected ways. There were a couple of times when I had a hard time believing in Victor’s choices, but I still found myself rooting for this character that I both loathed and loved at the same time.