Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Underground Airlines' Is An Extraordinary Work Of Alternate History


This is FRESH AIR. Ben H. Winters is a writer whose work has spanned different genres. His 2012 book, "The Last Policeman," won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. And his 2013 book, "Countdown City," won the Philip K. Dick Award for distinguished science fiction. Winters's latest novel, "Underground Airlines," mashes together elements of the thriller with speculative history. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that however you classify "Underground Airlines," it's indisputably a winner. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: One of the comforts of reading a work of so-called alternate or speculative history is being able to stop reading it. What I mean by that is - most novels that imagine the different ways the past could have played out imagine things going really, really wrong. Think, for instance, of Philip Roth's novel "The Plot Against America," in which Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 election against Franklin Roosevelt and promptly signs a peace treaty with Germany and Japan.

An even grimmer variant on World War II history is Philip K. Dick's "The Man In The High Castle," where Germany and Japan win the war and divvy up the United States between them. And at the more sci-fi-ish end of the spectrum is Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," in which a Christian terrorist group takes over the U.S., suspends all constitutional rights and renders women completely subject to the rule of men.

As ingenious as these novels are, it's also a relief to leave their worlds and hightail it back to the broken but nonetheless better real world that we readers live in. An extraordinary new novel of alternate history, however, refuses to deliver that payoff of relief at the end. Instead, "Underground Airlines" by Ben H. Winters jolts readers to a heightened awareness, making us see just how much of the nightmare of what could have been is part of the all-too-familiar reality of what is.

"Underground Airlines" imagines that the Civil War never happened. Rather, Lincoln was assassinated before he took office. And in an act of compromise, some states were allowed to maintain slavery. Those slave states, known as the Hard Four, consist in the present day of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the reunited Carolinas. They're demarcated from the rest of the U.S. by heavily patrolled borders.

The other states in the Union have agreed that any slave or person bound to labor, as they're called, must be returned to the corporate plantation from which they've escaped. That's where Victor, the anti-hero of this noir-ish novel, comes in. Victor is a bounty hunter working for the U.S. Marshals Service. He's adept at infiltrating abolitionist groups and retrieving runaways because he's black himself. Or rather, as Victor precisely tells us, he's moderate charcoal with brass highlights, which is one of the 172 varietals of African-American skin tone delineated in the U.S. Marshals Service field guide.

When the novel opens, Victor is sitting in a diner in Indianapolis with a Catholic priest who's suspected of running a rescue cell of what's called the Underground Airlines. Victor is posing as a husband, a free man desperate to rescue his wife from enslavement in a strip mine in western Carolina. That's all just a ruse, of course.

The person Victor has been assigned to find is a runaway named Jackdaw, who's escaped to Indianapolis from a plantation in Alabama run by the Garments of the Greater South corporation. Victor's voice, melancholy and wry, leads us through the labyrinthine hunt for Jackdaw, as well as through the puzzle of his own identity and why he's working as a bounty hunter in the first place. Let's just say that Jackdaw isn't the only fugitive here on the run from the unbearable.

Like all great works of suspense - and this is one suspenseful tale filled with double crosses and dangerous expeditions down drainage tunnels and into plantations - "Underground Airlines" is hyperattentive to details. The world Winters conjures up is chillingly credible. It's a world, for instance, where the righteous pride themselves on eating food and buying clothes that have the so-called clean hands seal of approval, meaning they haven't been produced by slave labor.

It's a world where persons bound to labor are branded at the base of their throat with the tattoos of their corporate owners. Anti-slavery activists voluntarily sport similar tattoos in solidarity. And it's a world where every city in the North has its freed man town. In Victor's description, a neighborhood of ramshackle houses and crumbling high rises crammed to the gills with the poorest of the poor, living hard - the forgotten children of forgotten children.

In "Underground Airlines," author Ben H. Winters has imagined not only a disturbing but plausible alternate reality for the United States. But as a white author, he's also imagined himself into the body and consciousness of his black narrator, Victor. These days in particular, that's a controversial move. But the exceptional novel that results seems to me to be justification enough for such an act of creative crossing.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Underground Airlines" by Ben H. Winters.


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our interview about Bobby Kennedy's transformation from stalwart anti-communist to liberal icon or our interview with Matt Ross, who plays the head of Hooli on HBO's "Silicon Valley" and made the new movie "Captain Fantastic," check out our podcast.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.