This book review originally aired on February 20, 2017.
Not to be confused with Colson Whitehead’s inventive novel, Underground Railroad is Ben H. Winter’s Underground Airlines. Part thriller, part alternative history, and fully engaging, Underground Airlines is set in the present.
The civil war never happened and Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Carolina are slave states known as the Hard Four. The “Airlines” of the title refers to an escaped slave's safe passage out of the US.
The book opens in Indiana, where Victor, a slave hunter, is working for a government agent named Bridge, and is searching for a slave named Jackdaw. This simple setup becomes complicated within a few chapters, as the layered world of slave trade, import/export laws from north and south, and double agents enter the playbook. A few chapters later we learn that Victor himself is an escaped slave, caught in a web of malfeasance and must risk his so called freedom by going back to the south. As he travels under the arcane rules set up for black people in the Hard Four, he is under surveillance by Bridge, a priest, two cops and a henchman. He’s been sent to steal company secrets that will scandalize one of the largest manufacturers in the Hard Four. Free State citizens in the North don’t much like purchasing exported goods from companies earning money off the backs of slave labor.
Winters, an Edgar award winner for The Last Policeman, has created a fully formed world in which greed interferes with humanity, power can corrupt, and, to the satisfaction of the reader, sometimes the good guys can still get somewhere even if they don’t fully win.