Mysterious Book Report Underground AirlinesUnderground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Mulholland Books/Little Brown, $26.00, 322 pages, ISBN 978-0-316-26124-1

Wow!  The bad news is; it’s the last week of October and time for the last installment of our second annual MBR Freak Fest.  But the good news is; we’ve  saved the best for  last . . . and it’s timely, as well as controversial and thought provoking given what’s been in the news of late . . . because it’s a thriller that takes place in an alternate America.  An America where slavery still exists because the Civil War never happened.

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters starts out as a literary thunderstorm on page one and grows into a CAT-Five hurricane at the conclusion.  It’s a novel predicated on the question, What If? What if, the war for southern secession had never happened? What would be the resulting consequences?  How different would our country—our society—and our unifying principals be?  How would we act as a nation, to other countries, our allies and trading partners . . . our adversaries?  What would the world look like?

All those questions are addressed through the eyes of a young and talented black man who calls himself Victor.  Victor is a bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshall Service.  His job is tracking down runaway slaves from the ‘Hard Four’ . . . Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the combined north and south Carolinas . . . where slavery is still legal, still practiced, still utterly reprehensible.  All of the other 45 states have outlawed the practice and enacted highly restrictive laws about dealing with the Hard Four—who are still members of the United States of America.  They have seats in the US Senate and House of Representatives, have lobbyists acting on their behalf and advocating for their rights.  But when Victor is sent to Indianapolis, tasked with finding a runaway slave code named Jackdaw, everything in his narrow world is upended.  Jackdaw’s carrying a package of supreme importance to both the Hard Four and the  abolitionists Victor finds himself engaged with, as well as the Marshall’s Service.  As each new plot detail is revealed, Victor becomes a complex and tragic character with many flaws . . . and an equal number of redeeming qualities . . . in a world where nothing is as it first appears.  Underground Airlines is a novel that will not only entertain you, it’ll make you examine long-held assumptions, beliefs and values as you try to figure out who the characters really are and what they stand for in this provocative and complicated work that’ll leave you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading it!


John Dwaine McKenna