With current headlines of NFL players kneeling for the national anthem and the continued momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, we in this country are confronted with old wounds from slavery that are far from healed. In Underground Airlines, Ben Winters paints a picture of modern America the same as it is today, save for one detail: slavery is legal in four states. In the history leading up to his story, Lincoln was shot before his inauguration and the Civil War never happened. To solve the dispute over slavery, a treaty was entered that allowed four Southern states to uphold the institution of forced servitude or, as it is euphemistically called, “People Bound by Labor.” They had the practice baked into the Constitution – forever protected. And, the slaves of the 21st century get an upgrade: they are corporate property, with the logos of the corporations branded onto their skin, marking their ownership.
The main character, Victor, is a bounty hunter who tracks fugitives for the United States Marshals Service. The people he’s chasing are escaped slaves. He has a complicated past: he also was an escaped slave who, when caught, was given the Faustian deal to exchange his soul for his freedom. The book reads like a noir mystery detective thriller. Victor is a cynical, private loner who reports his daily progress by telephone to a shadowy, yet ever-looming Mr. Bridge whom he has never met. Victor, who uses being black and a prior slave to his benefit, turns out to be a pro at his job – he has racked up more than 200 captures. On the current case, he infiltrates an abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines, but something about the case-file details seem off. The further he delves, the more irregularities he uncovers and the less he can trust the stakeholders around him. The case gets under his skin and starts to chip away at the thin veneer of indifference Victor has built up to shield himself from his conscience. He soon is haunted by visions of his youth in a Carolina slaughterhouse plantation along with the ghosts of the many run-aways he helped the Feds to catch. Mr. Bridge makes it known that his freedom depends on continuing to perform his duties – and a tracking device implanted in his spine makes the idea of escape impossible.
According to Ben Winters, in the Fall of 2013 he was searching for his next project. He kept thinking about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was fatally shot in Florida by George Zimmerman and other incidents of police violence against African-Americans. “Our country is still dealing with the legacy of slavery,” Mr. Winters said. “As I researched the subject, I realized I wanted to take this figurative idea that slavery is still with us, and make it literal.”
The novel was a finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize, the 2017 Southern Book Prize, the 2017 International Thriller Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. The book won the 2016 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
Winters has written the pilot script for a television adaptation in the works.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, October 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 4 to discuss Underground Airlines at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.