Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Underground Airlines by Ben Winter

Imagine the world if Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated before the Civil War.  This is the world of Underground Airlines.  In this alternate world, no war happened.  In order to honor Lincoln's desire for a united America, a compromise is hammered out in Congress with slavery remaining an option.

Move forward to the present.  Slavery is now down to four states, known as The Hard Four.  The rest of the country abhors what is going on there and refuses to buy products from those states, although foreign markets have no such reluctance.  In forty-six states, African-Americans are free to live a life like anyone else, to work the job they want, live where they want, love and marry whom they choose.  In four states, by luck of the draw, their brothers and sisters have none of those possibilities.

The reader joins the story as Victor has received his latest assignment.  He is a man who spends his life capturing runaway slaves, knowing that they will be returned to servitude.  Almost unbelievably, Victor is himself a former runaway.  He is invaluable to the Marshals whose job it is to capture those who have escaped as he can work his way inside the underground organizations set up to aid escape.  Why would he do this?  Because it is the only way he is allowed to remain free or semi-free, a tool with an implanted tracking device.

Victor's latest assignment is Jackdaw.  He gets the scent and is fairly sure that he will be successful in finding him and exposing another network.  But something is wrong, something is different about this assignment.  As he discovers what is going on, Victor sees an opportunity to finally break free of his job and live the life he always wanted.

This novel has received a lot of praise.  It was a Goodreads Choice finalist as well as being named one of the Best Books of 2016 by outlets such as NPR, Kirkus Reviews, Amazon and Publisher's Weekly.  Winter's depiction of this alternate history slowly reveals layer after layer of the pain and degradation that slavery inflicts on its victims.  It is especially timely today when racist organizations seem to be mounting an attempt to become strong and viable.  This book is recommended for science fiction readers as well as literary readers.

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