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Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
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Underground Airlines (edition 2016)

by Ben Winters (Author)

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4002626,709 (4.1)67
Member:parasolofdoom
Title:Underground Airlines
Authors:Ben Winters (Author)
Info:Mulholland Books (2016), 336 pages
Collections:To read
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Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

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Showing 1-5 of 25 (next | show all)
I highly enjoyed and appreciated this gripping book on three levels.

First, it presents a fascinating what-if scenario. In this alternate America, instead of having a civil war, the states came to a compromise that essentially made slavery constitutional into perpetuity. In the present day, slavery continues to be legal in four states--the "hard four," as they are called--making the United States a political and trade pariah in the world. This hard-to-fathom reality of present-day legal slavery shades every plot point, character motivation, and line of dialogue, presenting a mind-warping vision of America.

Layered on top of this is a highly suspenseful, well-plotted crime story. The combination of tropes from two such disparate genres infuses both with a new energy. Winters has done this before, in his excellent Last Policeman trilogy, but he's upped his game here. The nameless narrator, once a slave, is now an undercover detective for the US Marshals who tracks fugitive slaves himself, with a hard-boiled sensibility but a nuanced character that gradually reveals itself.

All of this would be enough to make Underground Airlines a terrific read, but Winters has deftly woven piercing social commentary into his alternate history. This vision of America, in which people passionately condone the enslavement of black human beings, is so different from and yet so much like our own society that it forces the reader to re-examine all the assumptions that lie at the bottom of race relations in the United States today. Without preaching or lecturing, Winters makes us question how we view race as it affects poverty, education, incarceration, pretty much everything.

This book enthralled me on all levels. I so hope there will be a sequel, because I would definitely read it. ( )
2 vote sturlington | Mar 23, 2017 |
Six-word review: Hunting escaped slaves in alternate U.S.

Extended review:

This was my first exposure to the work of Ben H. Winters. I'd call it a winner. As soon as I finished it, I put the first of his "Last Policeman" trilogy on request at the library.

Underground Airlines posits a twenty-first-century United States in which the Civil War was never fought and slavery persists in four states. The main character, for reasons deeply rooted in the tragedy of his personal history, is a bounty hunter whose job is to track down slaves (PBLs--Persons Bound to Labor) who have made it to a free state and finger them for capture.

Making his story both compelling and psychologically complex is the fact that he himself is a black man and former PBL. He understands the mind of his prey: "What the slave wants but can never have is not only freedom from the chains but also from their memory." Pragmatic necessity never stops warring with guilt and self-loathing in this man who has taught himself ruthlessness as the price of survival; and yet some remnant of human feeling holds out the possibility of redemption: "I was a monster, but way down underneath I was good.... Good underground. In the buried parts of me are good things."

At the halfway point I wrote this in my notes: "Deliciously unreliable narrator who deceives for a living and who may or may not be deceiving us--and why is he writing this?--and yet seems to have an uncompromisingly truthful core, and what seems to me--but what do I know?--a keenly subtle sensitivity to the racism embedded in our society--even in those who believe they are free of it, challenging us to recognize and acknowledge our own."

Despite a few plot holes that I found irksome, this book delivered a strong and moving sense of vicarious experience and an undeniable call to take our own moral inventory. ( )
3 vote Meredy | Mar 20, 2017 |
The author has imagined a United States in which the Civil War never occurred and four Southern states continue to support the ownership of human beings, or “Persons Bound to Labor.” Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he had the chance to serve as president. Japanese cars are difficult to obtain because Japan, like the developed nations of Europe, has imposed sanctions on the United States in order to pressure the remaining slave states, known as the Hard Four, to abolish slavery.

Victor works for the U.S. Marshals, specifically for Mr. Bridge, a man he has never met but only communicates with on the phone. He tracks down runaway slaves and has already found and returned 209 escapees. He can easily go into areas where escapees might be hiding because he is black himself, and an escaped slave. Currently he's in pursuit of an escapee named Jackdaw, who was enslaved in a textile plantation in Alabama owned by a vast corporation called Garments of the Greater South, Inc.

This book is essentially a thriller, and Victor is a detective in a classic noir approach. He's damaged, extremely good at his job, and torn between following orders and doing the right thing. The story often strains credibility, but it is always fascinating. I would recommend it to anyone interested in alternative history/dystopian fiction or to anyone interested in a good thriller. I listened to the audio version, narrated by William DeMeritt, who did a fantastic job. ( )
1 vote Olivermagnus | Dec 14, 2016 |
What if Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he had a chance to serve as president? What if the Civil War never happened? What would the present day United States be like?

In Underground Airlines, the author has created an alternate history detective story told through the eyes of a former slave, Victor. In Victor’s world, four states still allow slavery, and according to the constitution it can never be abolished.

To keep his freedom, Victor had to agree to work as bounty hunter for the US Marshalls and track down runaways. We see that he is good at his job as he almost effortlessly picks up the trail of a runaway slave hiding in the Midwest. But Victor is a conflicted character — he knows what he is doing is wrong, and this case is particularly troubling: Something is not right, documents are missing from the file, and things are not what they appear to be.

I enjoyed this fast-paced thriller set in a believable world with a thought-provoking ending. Will there be a sequel? I hope so; there is plenty of material for another story in this well-developed alternate world.

Audio production:
I listened to part of this novel which was expertly narrated by William DeMeritt. Through his voice we can feel the conflict, and often despair, that Victor feels. Both audio and print versions were equally compelling. ( )
1 vote UnderMyAppleTree | Nov 29, 2016 |
Jim, a 40 year old black man who has escaped from slavery, is tearfully trying to convince a priest, Father Barton, to help him free his wife. But his name isn't Jim (he goes by Victor, but that isn't his name either), he doesn't have a wife and its the present day, not the 1800s. In this terrific alternative history thriller there was no Civil War and Lincoln did not free the slaves. Slavery is still legal in four southern states. Victor works in the north as an agent of the U.S. Marshals Service tracking down escaped slaves, and he is now in Indianapolis hunting for the slave Jackdaw. Victor knows that the priest is part of a network of abolitionists known as the Underground Airline and he suspects that they are hiding Jackdaw.

This was a very imaginative and surprising plot. Motives are never straight forward. The Marshals become increasingly desperate to recover Jackdaw, and Barton is just as desperate to keep him away from them. Victor is caught in the middle between these two sides and each is willing to both bribe and threaten Victor to get his help. The book was particularly exciting when Victor had to head to one of the slave states to recover some information. He is required to have a white escort. Victor is a very complicated character, filled with anger and with an interesting backstory that is revealed gradually over the course of the book. He is a good person but very skilled at deception. He managed to free himself from slavery but not from racism and his work for the Marshals is not entirely voluntary.

The pace of this book was very fast. I had not intended to finish it in a day but I didn't want to stop listening to it. The ending was not all together satisfying, but I liked it. The audiobook was read by William DeMeritt, who has a voice that is extremely pleasant to listen to.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher but I wound up listening to the audiobook borrowed from the library. ( )
1 vote fhudnell | Nov 26, 2016 |
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"So," said the young priest. "I think that I'm the man you're looking for."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316261246, Hardcover)

It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it: smartphones, social networking and Happy Meals. Save for one thing: the Civil War never occurred.

A gifted young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He's got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called "the Hard Four." On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn't right--with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself.

A mystery to himself, Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and works to infiltrate the local cell of a abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines. Tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he's hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won't reveal the extraodinary stakes of Jackdaw's case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child who may be Victor's salvation. Victor himself may be the biggest obstacle of all--though his true self remains buried, it threatens to surface.

Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country's arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost.

Underground Airlines is a ground-breaking novel, a wickedly imaginative thriller, and a story of an America that is more like our own than we'd like to believe.

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 13 Jan 2016 17:04:39 -0500)

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