Like many of the books I read, I first heard about Underground Airlines on NPR—in a book review by Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air. It came out about the same time as Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Because I read Whitehead’s novel first, that world was rattling through my head as I entered the alternative history that Ben Winter has created—where the civil war never happened and where slavery still exists in the United States, even if it’s only confined to four southern states. It’s the present day with all its fast food and technological abundance but the existence of the “Hard Four,” the four states where slavery remains legal, has shaped the U.S. in troubling (and all too familiar) ways.
We see this world through the eyes of “Victor” (not his real name), who was born a slave but has lived as a free man in the North since he escaped when he was fourteen. However, his freedom comes at a price—he works for the U.S. Marshals Service tracking down escaped slaves and returning them to the companies that own them. Victor’s handler is a Mr. Bridge, a man he has never met, but who issues orders over the phone and who often reminds Victor about the price he will pay if he refuses to do his job—a one-way ticket south.
As the novel begins, Victor is in Indianapolis, trying to hunt down an escaped slave named Jackdaw, by infiltrating a local group of abolitionists. However, a chance encounter in a motel parking lot with a white woman and her mixed-race son sets Victor on a different path—one that will shift his moral compass slowly towards a new way of being. Through this world and its compromised hero, Winters creates a vision of the United States that is both scarily different and all too familiar.