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Underground Airlines Hardcover – July 5, 2016
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An Amazon Best Book of July 2016: A powerful look what might have been, Ben Winters creates an alternate reality based on the absence one of our most important historical events: The Civil War. Slavery has infected the United States, permeating the everyday lives of most Americans without much thought until a group of citizens come forward to try and make a difference. This trailblazing and well thought out novel plays the role of mystery-thriller while poignantly illuminating the many ways life today is more like Winters' alternative world than we may want to admit. --Penny Mann, The Amazon Book Review
"This one kept me up at night and changed the way I saw the world once I was finished."―Ann Patchett, Time
"This is one of the most thoughtful and inventive books I've read. Part alternate history and part detective novel, Underground Airlines couldn't be more timely or thrilling. It's a page-turner with a big mission: to warn against placing our history on a dusty shelf. On every page is the spirit of Faulkner's quote-The past is never dead. It's not even past. Here, Winters takes America's legacy as a slaveholding nation all the way to its logical and terrifying conclusion."―Attica Locke, Edgar Award-nominated author of Bluebird, Bluebird
"An extraordinary work of alternate history . . . Indisputably a winner"―Maureen Corrigan, NPR
"Underground Airlines is a masterful work of art with a gripping mystery at its most basic level. It's also a complex allegory woven throughout with sparking rich dialogue and multiple shades of awareness. Passengers, fasten your seat belts. The ride may be turbulent, but that's what makes it great."―Jen Forbus, Christian Science Monitor
"A swift, smart, angry new novel . . . Its vibrant imagination never slackens. . . . As a feat of world-building, Underground Airlines is astonishing, immediately taking its place in the genre's very first rank."―Charles Finch, USA Today
"[Winters] paints a convincing picture of what fugitive life would look like in our own era... he wants to get us to see the past in the present-the innumerable ways that we still live in a world made by slavery."―Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker
"An immersive thriller as well as a provocative alternative history, 'Underground Airlines' showcases a fully realized central character who believes his own disturbing past can be kept safely buried. But history has a way of bubbling to the surface of the present."―Jean Zimmerman, New York Times Book Review
"[A] striking work of speculative fiction . . . Winters creates a powerful and timely ethical framework for his fast-moving new thriller."―Jane Ciabattari, BBC
"Chilling"―Alexandra Alter, New York Times
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A good thriller made better by the alternate reality setting: in fact the setting is so good that I could see further books being written in this world which could hopefully give more of the depth and detail that I wanted to see in this book.
In "Underground Airlines," the protagonist, who goes by a shifting set of names from Jim to Victor to Brother, is an escaped slave who has been caught and is now trapped in a new form of servitude, forced by the U.S. government to track down other attempted runaways. He hates his work but feels he has no choice; if he tries to flee again, he will be returned to slavery or killed. As he is tracing the flight of a man to Indianapolis, he uncovers information through the "Underground Airlines" -- a network of allies helping slaves escape -- that could lead to his freedom. But his bosses at the U.S. Marshals Service also expect him to hand over the evidence.
I admired how Winters portrayed the hypocrisy of the rest of the nation; most people would claim not to buy from companies that use slave labor, yet Atlanta allowed those corporations to use its highways to transport goods. It reminded me of the fact that most of us buy from retailers that benefit from exploitative prison labor to this day. I empathized with Victor's self-loathing for being forced to serve as an informant and badly wanted him to escape. Winters painfully describes the brutality and violence of slavery in ways that emphasize how many lives were destroyed by a cruel and unjust system -- one that was kept in place by millions of individual choices.
Yet the plot of "Underground Airlines" slips from a well-paced, believable story in the North to a chaotic, underexplained cascade of events when Victor travels to the South. By the end of the novel, I found myself outside the tension of the story, disbelieving what had happened and wondering how the author would wrap up the loose ends. Some of the fantastical elements introduced in the final chapters undermined the overall cohesion of the book and distracted from the compelling psychological tension of its earlier scenes. I finished the book impressed by its ability to portray the lasting consequences of slavery and racism but unconvinced of its internal coherence.
Most recent customer reviews
The writing was so bad . The only possible explanation would be that the 1st person narrator is uneducated, but that seems generous...Read more