Set in an alternate United States, in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before taking office, the Civil War was never fought, and slaves were never emancipated, Underground Airlines is the story of a young black man (who goes by various names) working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshal service. His job? Hunting escaped slaves in contemporary America.
First, this was a very well-written book. It’s in the style of a hard-boiled detective novel, and the world building by Ben Winters is fairly well thought out. My only gripe there is that this United States is almost exactly the same. Winters takes great pains to demonstrate that everything has played out along similar historical lines. Martin Luther King still existed and was a civil rights activist. Jessie Owens ran in the ’36 Berlin Olympics. James Brown still made music, and Michael Jackson features prominently (the bulk of the novel takes place in Indiana). There’s an internet, cellphones, and a GPS network. The only substantive difference is that slavery still exists in four states (the others freed their slaves for various reasons). This does bring with it some consequences. There is, on the surface, little trade between the North and the South, and the North is suffering from an economic recession brought about by Europe and Japan turning their back on the US over the slavery issue. But, by and large, this is the America we know.
For much of the novel, this was a significant source of frustration for me. Because, quite simply, I don’t believe the Civil War was insignificant. Not only could relatively minor changes to the historical timeline have significant impacts on the course of history, but I think it’s untenable to think that major changes would have no impact. Winters has Lyndon Johnson still being president in the 1960s. I mean, variations in the way history played out simply wouldn’t result in the same outcomes.
But….I think he did this for a reason. I think Winters’ point is that our current society never escaped the consequences of slavery. As much as we like to tell ourselves that we’ve come a long way – we really haven’t, in many ways. Winters represents this by having the death of Lincoln leave no lasting impact. Implausible? Absolutely. But I think it’s still intentional.
And, look, that’s a fair point to make. Not only did emancipation not end slavery, neither did the passage of the 13th amendment. As many know from Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13TH, or reviews here on CBR, the 13th amendment allows for state-sanctioned slavery as a punishment. Slavery is still taking place in the United States, and there more slaves in the 21st century than there ever were in the New World prior to 1866.
Where I have to diverge from Ben Winters, though, is that he paints this world as still having a strong abolitionist movement, complete with their own version of the Underground (hence the title) and global opposition reminiscent of the boycott of apartheid South Africa. In our world, the actual 2016, we have little problem with slavery. It doesn’t stop us from owning smart phones, or eating shrimp, or buying gold and diamonds. We don’t do much to help migrant laborers in the United States, many of whom (especially women) have no recourse to escape and are effectively slaves. We – you and I – benefit from slaves. We benefit from cheaper food and other goods. It’s a terrible reality of our world, and it’s one that we are likely doing nothing about.
Look, most of us want to be heroes. Gun advocates think they’ll stop mass shootings. Celebrities think they could’ve prevented 9/11 if they’d been given the chance. I don’t think it’s uncommon for people to imagine themselves as taking part in heroic activities if they lived in trying circumstances; whether it be the actual Underground Railroad, or occupied France during WWII, or East Berlin under Communism. We all want to be the good guys.
And there definitely are those people. I’m not trying to argue otherwise. Hell, even many of you reading this could qualify, given the political climate many of us are dealing with. But I think the sad (maybe cynical) fact is, most of us aren’t like that. Most of us have families to protect, and while we do what we can for those within our ability to help, there are very real limits for most of us.
I really enjoyed this book. But I think it could’ve been even better had Winters written it as a paean for activism, rather than a simple description of one man overcoming his demons to do the right thing. I think we need more stories of people being galvanized to act – because there’s too little action. There are too many people who are too capable of finding reasons not to act, and I think this is something worthy of criticism. Not because we shouldn’t look after ourselves, but because doing so makes it easy to write polemics about 21st century slavery from the comfort of our living room couches while using a smartphone that only exists because of slavery.
And, yes, I’m describing myself.
Anyway. This book was enjoyable, and the message was a solid B+. But I think it fell victim to the targeting of some low hanging fruit. I do highly recommend the book, though.
Not previously reviewed.