Imagine the United States if Abraham Lincoln had never been president, the Civil War had never been fought, and it required a series of unending compromises hold a sharply divided nation together. This is the country veteran world-creator Ben H. Winters assembles in his bold, new alternate history, Underground Airlines. While not as pointedly dystopian as his "Last Policeman" trilogy, "Underground Airlines" paints a less than Eden-esque picture of a world power and its citizens tolerating institutionalized racism.
Before he can take the oath of office in Winters's re-construction of history, Lincoln is assassinated. To appease the factions threatening secession, the government adds Constitutional amendments indefinitely protecting slavery in states whose laws permit it. For present day America, that includes four states – "the Hard Four." Winters thoroughly considers technology, culture, and the global economy in his evolution of America's system of captivity. Countries across the globe refuse to trade with the United States, and it's banned from major world organizations like the United Nations.
Despite the compromises, conflict still exists within the US borders. Individual states pass laws against the buying and selling of goods that originate in the Hard Four. The Constitutional amendments prevent the federal government from abolishing slavery completely, but they don't prevent regulations, through which Winters offers up subtle parallels to modern society, "Violent slavery is against the law, but rules are always being broken. Plantations break the rules and apologize publicly and pay the fine and try to be more careful next time."
Winters also considers the current big business of cultural pastimes in his fictional world. The professional football leagues have incredibly wealthy franchise owners increasing their profits using "persons bound to labor" (PBs) on their teams. Publicly people criticize the practice then turn around and buy tickets to events or watch the games on television.
This alternate United States is well thought out, reflecting both superficial differences and startlingly deep-seated similarities to reality. Winters's world is viewed through the eyes of Victor, a federal slave catcher. He works for the US Marshal Service finding escaped PBs in the North so the government can fulfill its Constitutional obligation under the Fugitive Slave Act, returning runaways to their owners in the South. The irony of his situation: He himself is an escaped slave.
A white male giving voice to this narrator may seem daring, possibly even presumptuous, but Winters is keenly aware that colorblindness doesn't exist and in order to infuse this novel with the authenticity necessary for maximum impact, he must be acutely aware of skin color down to the Pantone shade. From inconspicuous thoughts, "The little one-syllable insult, boy, it worked like it always did, like a little chunk of gravel, a pointy rock of disgust and contempt," to blatant public disrespect, "agents of a special division ... called Internal Border and Regulation...who walked me through a bank of scanners, who ran their gloved fingers under my tongue, passed hands over my scalp ... who ran flat palms over the inches of my flesh," Winters pulls readers into the daily battles Victor incurs in the skin of a black man.
These cultural indignities are compounded by his employment with the Marshals. When Victor was first apprehended a tracking device was implanted in his spine, allowing his handler, Mr. Bridge, to know his exact location at all times. The threat of being returned South constantly looms over him if he considers running or intentionally botching an assignment.
Victor's current job, an escapee known as Jackdaw, is believed to be hiding in Indianapolis, awaiting his connecting flight through a young minister named Father Barton. Victor knows Barton is the key to finding Jackdaw. But he has to win the man's trust. Like any good pilot on the Airlines, Barton fiercely protects his cargo. And while Victor has cracked such people before, this case strikes him as different from previous assignments. The file on Jackdaw is sketchy, pieces are missing and Bridge responds vaguely, elusively when Victor questions him about the gaps. The mystery of Jackdaw drives Victor even more than normal. He puts the pieces he does possess together and begins to see the bigger picture, a picture that is capable of shaking the entire country to its core. The job is Victor's most dangerous, but it could also be his passport to true freedom.
"Underground Airlines" is a masterful work of art with a gripping mystery at its most basic level. It's also a complex allegory woven throughout with sparking rich dialogue and multiple shades of awareness. Passengers, fasten your seat belts. The ride may be turbulent, but that's what makes it great.