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Title: Underground AirlinesSummer Book Review Logo
Author: Ben H. Winters
ISBN: 9780316261241
No. of Pages: 336
Genre: Thriller; Alternate History
Origins: Mulholland Books
Release Date: 5 July 2016


“A gifted young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He’s got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called ‘the Hard Four.’ On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn’t right—with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself.

A mystery to himself, Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines. Tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he’s hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won’t reveal the extraordinary stakes of Jackdaw’s case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child who may be Victor’s salvation. Victor himself may be the biggest obstacle of all—though his true self remains buried, it threatens to surface.

Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country’s arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost.

Underground Airlines is a ground-breaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we’d like to believe.”

My Thoughts: Any discussion of Underground Airlines requires addressing the controversy about the book and the author. Granted, I had no idea there was any controversy about either while I was reading it. However, I will say that I did not only recognize Mr. Winters’ racial status while reading, but I did question his willingness to write such a book and have a POC narrator. Given that I was relatively unimpressed with Victor and felt little in the way of empathy towards him, I am not convinced that Mr. Winters was the best author for the type of book it is. I did not feel Victor’s emotional trauma. I did not experience any of the fear that being a person of color living in a white man’s world should bring. I never felt that sense of unease or even of tension as Victor works to pursue Jackdaw. I did not even feel any horror at the ongoing slavery and the secrets uncovered during his investigation. In other words, there was almost no emotional connection between me as the reader and Victor as the narrator. Is this the fault of the writer or the reader? Would I have felt differently had someone else written it who had experienced similar terror just because of the color of his or her skin? I am inclined to say that it is the writer and that I would have felt differently had an author of color written the novel because only someone who has had similar experiences can adequately explain what it feels like to be in those situations. The rest of us can try but will never quite reach a true understanding, although a decent author who has been in that type of situation can create empathetic characters and close the understanding gap. Mr. Winters is a good author; his life experiences are just too different from Victor to be able to create that link.

This does not diminish the actual subject matter though. Regardless of how I feel about the book in general, the idea that slavery can still exist, and does in some parts of the world, is an extremely important topic. The discussion about current race relations, especially in the United States, needs to happen no matter who authors the story. Mr. Winters does this with his story, in which he raises even greater awareness of racial discrimination and creates a world that is far too close to our current situation today.

For that reason, while I may not have thoroughly enjoyed the story as much as I had hoped, I recognize it as an extremely important and timely work that forces people to rethink race relations in the United States and recognize the dangerous path on which we as a society currently appear to be traveling. While the story could be stronger and the characters could be more developed, the message and the warning implied within that message does not change. In the end, Underground Airlines remains a chilling reminder that persons of color continue to struggle to find justice and fair representation within our society and the definitions of good and bad are different depending on the color of your skin.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

BOTTOM LINE: On one side, it is highly disappointing. On the other side, its message is too important to disregard.

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