Jan 2, 2017

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters

It's interesting that 2016 saw two powerful novels written about the same subject with an alternate history twist to each. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead replaces the figurative railroad with actual railways. Underground Airlines is a bit more sinister: the Civil War did not end with the emancipation of the slaves, but rather with permanent amendments protecting slavery in any state that wishes to retain it. The novel takes place in the present day, with four Southern states still participating in that most despicable of practices. Built into the Constitution are protections for those states, including a branch of the U.S. Marshal Service that hunts down runaway slaves and returns them to their owners. The other states represent varying degrees of collusion; most states have passed laws preventing businesses from dealing directly with slave-holding companies, and some have made it illegal to force a black police officer to participate in the search for and detainment of runaway slaves. Despite these well-meaning efforts, racism - both overt and subtle - is still very much at work in these free states, and whites who fight against the situation are invariably taken in by the Mockingbird mentality: oppressed black, white savior. Sound familiar?

While Winters was writing this novel, much of the racial tension I just described had been simmering under the surface of American culture and politics for years. With the election, and the wave of hate crimes that immediately followed it, the fallacy of a post-racial America has been brought painfully to the surface. The world Winters built is not so surreal anymore, as it has become clear that race does indeed still play a large role in 21st Century America. The government that turns a blind eye to racial violence and the people who perpetrate that violence are just as much a part of our world as they are a part of our anti-hero's. It's chilling.

Now onto the writing. The novel feels more to me like two books than one - the first is about finding Jackdaw, the second is about finding the package. Winters has written series in the past, so I'm curious why he jammed so much into one book. It was a bit exhausting, to be honest. Our anti-hero, known through most of the book as Victor, is a black agent of the U.S. Marshal Service who tracks down runaway slaves. He's very good at his job, and something about this newest case just seems off to him. He pulls back layer after layer until finally reaching a sordid secret. I don't want to reveal anymore about the plot because this is definitely worth picking up, I just wish it were a little less busy. The story could have easily be split into two books, and I would have readily picked up the second if it had been cut off just after the finding of Victor's prey. As it stands, the book stuffs a very eventful week into just over 300 pages. I think two 250-page books would have been a more enjoyable read.

Once we get into that second half, the writing also becomes a little frenetic and disjointed. Victor is experiencing emotional upheaval, which in Winters' writing is expressed with lots of repetition of phrases and substantially more emotion-coded words than the first half. Perhaps this is another reason why I felt splitting the story into two books would have been smart. The second half is practically a different novel anyways, as Victor is a very different person and the writing reflects that. Instead of being pulled into his emotional state, I felt put off by it due to the sudden switch in writing style.

Despite these flaws, this is an important addition to contemporary American fiction on race. It throws into high relief the absurdity of claiming race does not play a role in America, or that racism does not exist. We may no longer have race-based slavery, but there are huge swathes of our population who seem to look back upon that dark time as their glory days. The growing voice of the racist, misogynist groups that seek to relabel themselves as the "alt-right" show that Winters' alternate reality is not so very different from our own. Read, be made uncomfortable, then go do something about it.

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