What would this country be like if slavery were still legal in certain states? Like, for instance, Alabama? Louisiana? Mississippi?
How would this country’s political, judicial, social and racial and economic structures look?
These questions are (somewhat) addressed in Ben H. Winters’ book, Underground Airlines.
Now, when I first came across this book, saw the cover, then read the summary…
…a huge “NAWL” rose up in my spirit – because with all the slavery-themed films and literature saturating our psyches, I was all slaved out, Fam. And here it was, a hard-cover image of a black man with title playing on the Underground Railroad… it wore me out. Not another one. Please. I’m still trying to recover from Rosewood and like, 30 seconds of 12 years.
So, how did I end up here?
Simple… the protagonist.
His name is Victor (we think), and he is a former slave – turned bounty hunter who works for the federal government. A black man who catches other black men and women, and returns them to their rightful owners. A mysterious, introspective type who only allows us brief glimpses of his past. A hero who has little control over his own destiny, spending his life ping-ponging from one situation (and one identity) to another.
It took me a while, but I realized why that felt so familiar to me… it reminded me of the nameless protagonist from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. There are differences, sure, but an essential element is present in both characters – a weightlessness, a detachment from everything around him.
So yeah, Ben got me, y’all. So imagine me, metaphorically going down the dark cellar stairs towards my doom.
Okay, so it wasn’t that dramatic. But as I read this book, I kept feeling as if I was being set up for something awful.
Or at least, for something disappointing.
So, this Victor kid.
As the book begins, he is sitting across from a priest in a diner, playing through one of the assumed identities that he wears. The priest, according to Victor’s sources, ran a small operation that helped slaves escape from the four slave states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and The Carolinas (called the “Hard Four”) through a “team of northerners, daring or crazy, making pinprick raids into the Hard Four, grabbing people up and hustling them to freedom” (p. 9).
Ooh, child – I was so here for this plot. Hear me?
So far, so good.
So anyway, the basic plot is this – Victor is an escaped slave who works for federal law enforcement (represented by a mysterious dude he calls Mr. Bridge) to find and return a slave named “Jackdaw.”
In this alternate world, some things are still the same. Dr. Martin Luther King has still been assassinated outside of his Memphis hotel room. The 18th amendment still exists, as do fried chicken and hamburger chains. Abraham Lincoln still hasn’t survived his visit to the theater. MJ is still the greatest to ever do “it.”
And the U.S. Government is still training the best killers in the world.
Much is different. For one, Texas has “unofficially” seceded, calling itself the “Republic of Texas.” James Brown, the Godfather of Soul and expert escape artist, is, in this world, a defected slave. A former leader of a traveling, singing, family band of slaves, spreading the propaganda of “happy slavery” to those in the North.
The hits just keep coming, but I’m not gonna ruin the entire thing for you.
You know, I was really excited to read this book in the beginning. But the problems I had with it showed up in rapid succession. Number one, Winters seems to be making several points, each very important and worthy of detail. Unfortunately, he just jumps from one to another, giving each a cursory glance and a wink before moving on to the next – not giving the reader a chance to recover.
I want to like this book. I mean, really like it. I want to buy copies for friends, then invite them over to my house so we could eat hot wings and talk and cackle.
But I don’t like it that much. Winters backs away from making any serious indictments of the “peculiar institution,” or of current societal issues for that matter. It seems that he tries, at least, during the first half of the book – but he soon turns towards a sci-fi-ish (yup) direction without explanation or logical foreshadowing.
It was a WTF moment, to be sure. One which, sadly, almost ruined my experience with what could have possibly been a permanent addition to my collection of fiction.
I don’t want you guys to get the wrong idea – I do recommend this book. Mostly because I want to hear what other folks think about it. If you’ve read it, or will read it soon, please leave a comment below. Let’s talk about it!
No hot wings, though.