Underground Airlines is a cracking good thriller with plenty of social commentary blended in to make the reader think.
Imagine a reality where the Civil War never happened, and slavery still exists in the 21st century. The U.S. states have mostly stopped its practice, but four southern states hold out. Slave labor is now the primary building block of major corporations. As with our reality, slaves still want to escape this bound existence. Given the time period, the route and stops now use the language of Airlines rather than railroad. For example, there are gate agents, flights, etc.
The main character is Victor (not his real name), and he works for the U.S. Marshall Service as a bounty hunter. His job in the story is to find Jackdaw, but that’s the point where things start to go off the rails (pun intended). Victor must find his man, solve mysteries, balance the demands of both sides, and survive. In addition to the depth of his character, I appreciated Victor’s references to being invisible—a reference to Ralph Ellison’s classic book Invisible Man.
I listened to the audiobook version of Underground Airlines, and William DeMerritt captures the tone and voice of each character with expert precision. Of course, part of the reason for that is Winters’ excellent writing.
The pace moves so quickly down its twisty road that it’s hard to get ahead of all the plot possibilities. I love this kind of story, where you think the curtain has pulled back only to have a shade or two slammed into place to increase the confusion.
Winters’ imaginative take on the speculative universe is brooding and dark, which isn’t surprising when you think how much has stayed the same in hard labor practices since the late 1800s. We may not have overt segregation like Underground Airlines does, but people of color aren’t fully accepted and integrated either. You just need to read something like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to see that.
I’m glad I waited to read this until long after reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. They are vastly different books in tone and texture. I’ll be thinking about Underground Airlines for some time to come.