Underground Airlines, written by Ben Winters, in an alternate-history thriller. The novel takes place in modern day. Everything that we are accustomed to–the Internet, Facebook, television, modern transportation–is present, but with one major difference: the Civil War never happened and slavery exists to this day in four states known as the Hard Four, a result of the deal reached between the North and the South. In the past, slavery existed in the entire South; however, as time went on, some slaves rebelled against their masters while some were voluntarily freed. Also, over time state and local law enforcement became less and less interested in catching fugitive slaves and returning them to the plantations. As a result, it became necessary for federal law enforcement agencies to use former African-American slaves as undercover agents in order to find and return fugitive slaves according to the compromise. The book tells of one such undercover agent. Victor, which is an assumed name, is a young black man who struck a deal with the government to track down and return Jackdaw, a fugitive slave. At first, Victor knows nothing about Jackdaw, but as time goes on, he learns more and more about him. He travels to Indianapolis, where Jackdaw is believed to be hiding. While there, he infiltrates Underground Airlines, an abolitionist movement working to free the remaining slaves. However, Underground Airlines has its own agenda for which it plans to use Victor. As a result, Victor becomes a tool in the game of political intrigue.
Underground Airlines is very beautifully written. The plot is very imaginative, with lots of juicy details. In addition, character development is very strong, as the reader takes a close look at Victor’s moral choice of why he took the federal agents up on their offer, which guaranteed his personal freedom upon the mission’s successful completion. The way the author describes how Victor wrestles with his morals during his mission to capture and return Jackdaw back to slavery is in my opinion the star of the book.
All in all, I found Underground Airlines to be quite an enjoyable read. If you are a fan of alternate history novels and enjoy reading about moral dilemmas, then Ben Winters’ book is for you.
Ben H. Winters