Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Talk about a depressing idea for an alternate-history book. This one explores the concept of what would have happened if the United States had never abolished slavery, and it remains an institution in the present day. *sigh* Well, at least Hitler didn’t win the war this time…
Victor is a former slave who managed to escape to the north, but he was eventually caught by the government and forced to work undercover to help catch more poor souls who are trying to use the fabled Underground Airline to escape America. His latest case has brought him to Indianapolis where Victor finds inconsistencies about his latest target while he tries to avoid being drawn into the troubles of a white woman he meets at his hotel.
Just as he did in his Last Policeman trilogy Ben Winters has conceived of a society that is fascinating to read about, but you wouldn’t want to visit there. There’s a terrifying plausibility to the idea that a compromise struck to avoid the Civil War could have resulted in the continued existence of slavery into modern times, and that it would have been industrialized and modernized in the spirit of American capitalism. It’s the details that Winters conjures up that really sell it like the idea that while the north is free that racial equality is still at about a 1960s level rather than the 21st century, or that anti-slavery people try to buy goods certified as not being made by slave labor.
The book fails a bit in regards to its main character, and I’m not sure why. Victor is a pretty fascinating figure as a man forced to betray his own rather than go back into bondage, and while he’s conflicted about that he’s also damnably good at his job. However, by telling us the story only through the first person narrator it feels like it limits the scope of a story that should be wide and epic.
There was a similar problem with The Last Policeman where my uncertainty about the motivations of the main character there threatened to trip up a top notch end-of-the-world scenario. However, I warmed up to Hank Palace in the second book, and it felt like Winters kept making the story more intimate and personal as it progressed. Here, it’s the reverse with Victor being drawn into larger events, but while I found the setting compelling I kept wishing we’d get a broader and bigger perspective than he could provide.
I’m being a tad unfair in that my main dissatisfaction comes from wishing the book was something that it wasn’t. Winters has written a very interesting alt-history with a pretty compelling lead character, but I’m left wondering about all the ideas that the book couldn’t get into just because it limited itself to his story.
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