Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters is a hell of a book. The premise is that amendments to the US Constitution in the 1860s preserved the Union and averted the Civil War, but at the cost of continuing to accept slavery in states that chose to keep their peculiar institution. In the 21st century, a world of smart phones and GPS, slavery is still around in the Hard Four states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and a merged Carolina. Slave labor isn’t as useful for picking cotton in modern times, though “persons bound to labor,” as the book’s euphemism runs, still do that. They also work in factories making things from clothes to cars. Surveillance is up to modern standards.
So are attempts to escape, to reach the underground airline of “baggage handlers” who deliver slaves eventually to freedom in Canada. And so are the efforts of the slave catchers. Winters’ novel follows one of those, a man who is himself a former slave, back and forth through both sides of the looking glass as runners try to run and maybe catchers try to catch but maybe try to set themselves free of the system or maybe are just telling lies all around.
Through the eyes of the first-person narrator, readers see what oppression could, does, look like in 21st century America. People play roles, play dumb, until it’s hard to see who is getting played. Except every play leaves the white people on top, and the vast number of black people on the margins or worse.
Now I see things differently. It took me some time, but I know the secret now. Freedman Town serves a good purpose—not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working. Freedman Town’s purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say Will you look at those animals? That’s what those kind of people those people are. And that idea drifts up and out of Freeman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation (p. 140)
Winters’ protagonist is human, and unreliable. That view of society stands in contrast to how he feels another night:
The great bulk of my life, then, had passed outside the Hard Four, in the free part of the land of the free. But even after all these years, I still found myself astonished daily by the small miracles of liberty. Just walking out of a restaurant with a clear head and a full stomach, holding a Styrofoam box with leftover food inside it. Just lingering in the parking lot a minute before getting in the car, smelling the wet asphalt, feeling a light drizzle as it condensed on my forehead. Just knowing I could take a walk around the block if I wanted to, go to a park and sit on a bench and read a newspaper. Just getting in that car and feeling the vinyl give under my ass, feeling the cough and purr of the engine. All these things were small astonishments. Miracles of freedom. (p. 12)
In due course, some of the novel shows what corporatized slavery is like: factory songs, uniforms, schedules, enforced company cheerfulness. It would probably be familiar to many kinds of workers around the world today.
The book is a taut thriller; there are characters from all sides of the institution, and they have depth and complications. There are fools, sinners, and plenty trying just to do the best they can. It isn’t perfect. To my mind it misses the everyday corruption that such a system would require, and its enforcers are capable in a way that cogs in a totalitarian machine generally aren’t. But changing those aspects would make Underground Airlines closer to The Foundation Pit, and that’s not what Winters is aiming for. He aims for, and delivers, a harrowing, compulsively readable story of a plausible America, one that reflects the real America in all too many ways.