Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters

The blurb of this book pretty much sums it up:

It is the present day, and the world is as we know it.
Except for one thing: Slavery still exists.

Once you get over the shock of imagining a world like this, the story itself pulls you in. Winters has chosen a great angle to explore this world.

Our main character is a secret agent working to bring in escaped slaves. And, he was once a slave himself before he gained his “freedom”. That is, the people he works for make him do the work he does with no choice, essentially. We never even learn his real name.

One of my favourite parts of this book is the way Winters rewrites history. He mentions historical figures, key turning points and movements, and thoroughly explains how America turned out to still accept slavery in 4 southern states. The clincher, it seems, is that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, before he became president, and was unable to emancipate slaves. I don’t know heaps about this part of American history, so a lot of the subtle details probably went over my head, but I was still impressed at how it was all explained.

There are some super neat conventions used in this book to set the scene and the story. The protagonist uses nifty secret agent techniques like memorising a specific colour palette of black skin:

He was very tall and very dark-skinned – midnight, I calculated automatically, offhandedly: midnight, purple tone, a number 121 or 122.

We experience sickening flashbacks to his time as a slave at a slaughterhouse, doing the work that we take for granted machines can do for us now.

As for language, Winters is simple, effective, and utilises some beautiful turns of phrase:

The slight lilt in Maris’s voice contrasted pleasantly with the formality of his speaking style, like violet flowers in rich, dark soil.

Winters expertly inserts the horrendous practice of slavery into a modern day environment. It is hated by a majority of American states, but has been legalised for eternity. As a white man, writing from a black man’s point of view, he handles the situation very sensitively, with the right level emotion and anger:

For my whole career under Bridge I had always dreaded the page of the file that showed the photograph, the real human face of the man I was seeking, and now here I was among them – none of this peeb shit, none of this “Persons Bound,” no slaves down here, all that abstraction torn away like skin coming off a body, and these were people – human fucking beings, each with the one life he was given, and this was the life they had.

It’s awful, it’s shocking, and it’s brilliantly done. I was hooked from the first chapter.


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