Imagine a book telling a story based in an America where slavery never ended. I heard an interview with the author of Underground Airlines and was disappointed that they didn’t talk much about the book. Most of the discussion was centered on why a white guy would write a book like this and the reaction he’s received in the year it’s been out.
I kind of felt sorry for the author, Ben Winters. He put a lot of work into this novel and a lot of (black) people have given him flack because this is a topic he should leave alone because of the sensitive nature of the peculiar institution and the role white folks played in it.
I’ve stacked up a few Audible.com credits and couldn’t justify using one for Underground Airlines because the audible book was on sale for $4.95. That’s the best $5 I’ve spend in long time. I don’t think I’ve said WOW so much in the two days it took to get through this book. What an amazing story helped in great part by the actor who read it – William Demeritt.
Unlike the interview I heard, I’m going to tell you about the book.
First, you must understand that today’s slavery is not the slavery we’re familiar with involving people picking cotton under the watchful eye of brutal masters. Although still situated in the south, today’s slavery is operated out of huge manufacturing facilities that could be compared to sweatshops where labor is legislated to be treated humanely. But, the book spends very little time focused on the everyday activity of the slaves. Instead, the story follows an ex-slave turned bounty hunter who is on a mission to capture a runaway slave and have him returned back to his owners.
The book reads like a great nail biting crime novel with a bunch of twist you don’t see coming and characters that never appear to be who they really are. Even the mission turns out to be a different mission. As much as you don’t like the role the black main character plays in trying to track down the black runaway, you’re forced to root for him as you see the discrimination he encounters to get the job done.
Where the book really shines is in the it way depicts current day America as a place that operates as though slavery really hasn’t ended. No matter where blacks are in the country, they are always assumed to be suspect and must navigate life through an intricate and well-designed criminal justice-like system of scrutiny that results in no free black person ever being totally free.
The audible version is delivered by a guy who brings life to every character, black and white, man and women, an Irish priest to an old black southern grand-mom, with such realism that it’s almost scary to think one person can be so convincing acting as so many others.
I know how sick and tired we all are with all the slave movies and revisionist history shows on alternative outcomes of the Civil War. I’m right with you. But, Underground Airlines is an exceptional piece of work that will have you saying WOW from start to finish. I don’t read much fiction, but I’m so glad I stumbled on this one.