Take a moment and imagine an alternate reality where slavery still exists in modern America. Perhaps, to some, it may seem as if we are already living that reality on a smaller scale. Ben H. Winters’ new novel titled Underground Airlines creates an alternate history where the Civil War never happened, Abraham was assassinated before he took oath to be president and slavery still presides in the four southern states appropriately called the “Hard Four.” Modern references to pop culture make the tale hauntingly eerie as the nature of the book seems quite real. The United States often looked at as a beacon of hope, is now a country with a deviating moral compass. Winters makes America a social outsider, one that relies on foreign aid.
The protagonist Victor was once a former slave who escaped to the North. However he was caught by the Federal Government and forced to work undercover as an agent or “soul catcher”, collecting other runaway slaves and returning them back to the South as a way to maintain his freedom. His recent case brings him to Indianapolis where Victor is looking for a runaway slave by the name of Jackdaw. Through his pursuit of Jackdaw, Victor becomes closer to the truth of slavery and the oppressive system happening in America.
Unfortunately, this book fell short for me in many ways. The concept was an interesting one to say the least, however the delivery wasn’t quite there. The characters were wooden and stiff, and Victor’s character was written very shallow. I found that the story’s main point didn’t connect, and it read as a lumpy bit of text to me. Winters come up with a great concept for a novel, however he doesn’t make that idea extraordinary as the plot and characters fall flat.