Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This one took me by surprise. I remember the hype and the acclaim, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t rush to get it at full price because I’m skeptical of books about race and the experience of Blackness in America written by white writers. What could they possibly claim to truly understand about this subject? I know, white critics will almost always say that books about race are well-written as long as they recognize what they will call “our common humanity” or … “express the universal themes of love, the need for self-determination …” blah, blah, blah. And that, to me, is usually based on the arrogant assumption that everything seen from the perspective of whiteness is an accurate view. But this book was different in one key way, it reimagines America as a place where there are four states (“The Hard Four”) where slavery is still legal. Since purely speculative, I was willing to dive in. The author couldn’t very well “get it wrong” except that potentially he might make missteps in imagining the way a Black man might think. Well, in my opinion, he made no such missteps.
In this reimagined history, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a compromise was reached where slavery could be preserved in some Southern states. Now, in the approximate present-day, America is a very different place as a result, ostracized by the international community and rife with laws and regulations that manage this precarious arrangement of a “United” States where some have Persons Bound to Labor (called “PBs”) and some have free Blacks. The South is prosperous (all that free labor, y’know) and the North is plagued with economic difficulties, though Blacks are, ostensibly, “free”.
The main protagonist, “Victor” is a Black “slavecatcher” working for the U.S. Marshal’s service, using his cunning and his own history as a former PB to retrieve runaways and return them to their “owners”. He does this work not out of choice, but to preserve his own limited freedom. Of course, because of this, he is tortured and conflicted, though he often tells himself that he is not. He recalls the only love he had in his life, his older brother Castle, who while they were enslaved, worked hard to remind Victor of their humanity. But, as fascinating and action-filled as the plot was (and it was) I was most impressed by Ben Winters’ grasp of the intricacies of race relations, not from the perspective of a white person, but from that of a Black man. Victor, for instance, cynically makes references to the system that whites have put into place to identify the many shades of Black skin (in this new universe, depicted in a color chart for purposes of identification of runaways by complexion as well as other defining characteristics); and he considers the many ways that Black people might respond to the bondage, be it psychological (like his) or literal (like the men and women he captures). Through Victor, I get the sense the author truly dug uncommonly deep to try to understand the experience of Blackness in America.
And finally, the language and imagery was so beautifully done that I couldn’t help but admire that as well. I highlighted many more passages than I usually do when I read. This one, I think I may get in print as well. It feels like the kind of book I will want to read again. Highly recommended for lovers of speculative and literary fiction.
Audible note: I listened to, as well as read this as an ebook. It was so exceptionally done that I had to look up the narrator. He has some serious industry bona fides. I don’t think I’ve listened to a book that was better narrated than this one. His inflection and understanding of the character’s emotions were incredible. Clearly, he read the book from beginning to end before he attempted to narrate it, because from the very first paragraph, his voice told us something about Victor and who he was that would only later be revealed in the plot.
View all my reviews