“Underground Airlines” – A Novel Review

1 Sep

underground airlinesHistory is myth. Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves; the Thirteenth Amendment did that. FDR did not halt the Great Depression; a wartime economy ended what he had only been able to slow. JFK is considered one of the most beloved of all Presidents even though his accomplishments are few. Still, it can be argued that without Lincoln slavery would not have been abolished. Without FDR we would not have had a New Deal (or for that matter a victory in World War II). Without JFK the 1960s, an era of youth and movements for greater freedoms, may have been radically different. (Imagine Nixon winning in 1960. No, really think about that for a second.)

John Ford’s classic 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  contains one of the great quotes in all of film. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” We need legends. We need myths. We need stories of great men doing heroic things and bad men committing evil acts. It squares with our idea of how the world should operate.

History and the myth of history also shapes us. We live in a world and that world was created by innumerable past occurrences. Or, non-occurrences.

What would the world be like if Hitler never came to power? Would a Himmler or Goebbels have filled that vacancy? Would European Jewry be alive and well today? Would there be an Israel? Would the United States have emerged as a world power? Would any of us truly be the same? Would any of us actually have been born? (I may not have been.)

Speculations on: “What if such-and-such actually didn’t happen?” form the basis of the Alternate History genre of literature. What if the U.S. lost World War II? Read The Man in the High Castle. What if after World War II Jews settled in Sitka, Alaska instead of Israel? Try The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. FDR loses to Charles Lindbergh in 1940? The Plot Against America. How about if the South had won the Civil War? Check out Bring the Jubilee. Similarly, what if there was no Civil War, what if slavery has existed in some form, into the modern era?

That is the premise of Ben Winters’ novel Underground Airlines. The novel is set in a present that is historically divergent from our own while possessing certain elements that clearly mirror the real world.

In 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln is assassinated in Indianapolis on his way to D.C. The constitution is amended preventing slavery from ever being abolished, at least federally – states can still abolish within their borders. In present day America, slavery lives on in the Hard Four – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Carolina. Abolitionists still work tirelessly to free the three million still in servitude. Many northern states boycott industry from the Hard Four. A successor to the Underground Railroad still exists, the Underground Airlines, working to help escapees free to Canada.

Enter Victor, a black man who is actively working against the Airlines. He’s a former runaway, caught and enlisted (forcibly) by the U.S. Marshall’s to track down other runaways. Victor is implanted with a tracking device so his superiors know where he is at all times. His current assignment is discovering the whereabouts of a runaway named Jackdaw. As his investigation moves forward, Victor – and the reader – learns that Jackdaw may not be an ordinary runaway. There’s something more going on. He is, as one Airline worker points out, a special case.

Victor sees himself as a man of many layers. He is a bounty hunter, but also pretends to be at various times: a corporate businessman, a freedman trying to get his wife out of Carolina, and an actual slave. He’s a double agent, sometimes a triple (I think) agent, playing different factions against one another. But he’s also a double agent against himself, having to go against his own people in order to survive. In that way he is similar to the sonderkommandos, those responsible for disposing of their fellow Jews’ corpses in concentration camps. Both  the sonderkommandos and Victor, while not directly involved in genocide, still abet it. Or, more accurately, they are forced to abet it. They are given a choice: help us or meet the same fate as the rest of your people, in one case slavery, in another probable death.

Victor narrates the novel, and it is his story. But which Victor? There are so many of them. The Victor at the heart of Underground Airlines is the slowly simmering one who internally rages against Victor the Capitulator and Victor the Cynic. At any moment this Victor could go off and begin beating the living crap out of some racist thug. This anger, this rage at being a prisoner within his own soul, drives the narrative. Victor is forced to do evil, and at some point his anger will boil over.

As with almost all alternate history novels, part of the joy in the read is learning the mythology of the world. Winters at times goes into great detail regarding certain historical facts. It’s always difficult to assume what would have happened if certain events veered left instead of right, but Winters’ invented history works here. The only issue – and, honestly, the only real issue with the novel – is the clumsiness of his mythology dumps. An event is mentioned and Victor recounts its history for a couple of pages. It is a necessary bit of clumsiness in speculative fiction. (One other misstep: if Victor has a tracking device in his neck, why don’t all slaves? Of course, this would prevent the very premise of the novel. In which case the novel would never have been written, I would not be reviewing it, and you will not read my review, buy the book and meet the love of your life at some lonesome bar because s/he is also reading it. But, I digress.)

Winters is also the author of The Last Policeman trilogy (not to mention Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina), a series of detective novels set on an earth that is less than a year away from being hit by an asteroid. If those books exist in a world of slow burning existential dread, Underground Airlines lives in a horrorshow mirror of our own world. While reading the novel, one feels that the lives of northern free blacks are not all that different from the lives of many African-Americans in the real world. In one racism is sanctioned and legal, in another it exists “institutionally” within society, where even those who profess their non-racist bona fides find themselves acting with unconscious casual prejudice. 

Reading Underground Airlines it is easy to feel a sense of anger at how the black populace is treated. A woman calls her kids inside when she discovers them swimming in a pool with a black boy. A black man and a white woman rent a motel room in Tennessee and the desk clerk’s discomfort is all too apparent. An Indiana park is festooned  with flags reading “1819,” the last year slavery was legal in that state and a clear reference to the contemporary use of the Confederate flag as a symbol of the “good old days.” Nothing, however, is as surreal as when we finally go to Alabama and encounter the genteel slaveholding folk there.

Like The Last Policeman, Underground Airlines is a mash-up of genre fictions. The former was mystery/sci-fi, while the latter is thriller/sci-fi. Both are easily consumable reads, though neither can be considered escapist fiction by any means. They are intentionally unsettling works. Underground Airlines is never too clever for its own good. It is firmly grounded in its universe, a universe, like our own, that relies on the myths of history to survive. By the end, one is left thinking not only about the novel’s past, but also our own. Not to mention our future.

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