Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

The first thing that strikes me about the novel is it’s modern day presence. The book is set in an alternate present where the civil war never occurred and slavery still thrives in many states. The racism and discrimination is still just as tenacious as it was in the 20th century, but the advancements in technology and the overall progressiveness of the contemporary world creates a whole new spectrum to observe human bias. The plot revolves around a young African American man named Victor who’s occupation is ironic in the most terrible way. He is a bounty hunter, searching around the country for blacks who have escaped their plantations. Victor was once himself a plantation worker as a child and his mind is still scarred with the pain, so one would think he would have sympathy for the runaways, but he has developed a hard shell of hate to cover himself from any outlying feelings.

Victor’s character development is masterfully created through Winter’s writing style and tone. Within the first chapter, I felt like I had known Victor and his struggle for years. Victor’s current assignment is to capture a runaway simply known as “Jackdaw”. Victor is given a file with a picture of the mans face and thinks to himself, “Jackdaw was a handsome man, almost perversely handsome, like when you see a movie star playing a tramp or a wastrel and the face is not so familiar but also so obviously well cared for, and it just doesn’t ring true” (Winters 41). It’s this kind of unique simile and writing that makes the novel so intriguing and enjoyable. It also continues the theme of judgment that constantly circulates through the pages.

Winters attempted a challenging task when he wrote this novel about the changing dynamics and attitudes towards race. The balance and complexities of the issue are not easily written, however in this particular piece Winters is able to convey his feelings on the topic with ease. In the interactions between characters, he creates tension and understanding a pivotal role in the progression of the story. Common stereotypes are played out among characters to show the divide between races, such as when Victor sarcastically says to a white man, “We got fried chicken and watermelon from room service” (Winters 55). Victor is sort of an outcast in the fact that he hunts other blacks down for money. He has a keen perspective of life surrounding race, but has no intension of changing or challenging the way things are. While sitting in a hotel, he describes a, “Young white mother with her black son, trying to live in the world. This world” (Winters 25). The boy then walks over to him and begins to read the newspaper with Victor, which prompts him to wonder, “nobody had told him not to talk to strangers. Maybe black strangers were ok” (Winters 26). The racial divide is prominent in the country and in Victor’s personal life, yet he has secluded himself from all caring.

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One response to “Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

  1. benjaminaltman

    The second half of the novel was invigorating in all aspects, challenging me to keep with the rushed pace of the plot. Events seemed to spring up every page in apprehensive fashion, surprising me. This is especially true after Victor caught Jackdaw, who obviously enraged with his capture, “shot a thick wad of spit onto the priest’s face” (Winters 179). The characterization only gets more absurdly deep, drawing me into the book.

    Winters style of writing is peculiar but effective in driving home his point. He does not go into great depth over the details of the scenes, but takes joy in his descriptive dialog. He leaves much of the setting to the imagination while keeping the characters interesting through witty word play. One tactic he often uses is not mentioning the race of a character until after a scene is done. This is hinting at the readers role in the novel. He makes the reader try to guess the persons ethnicity through their actions and interactions, and then reveals their race later almost as if it were a quiz. This gave me the opportunity to understand how easy stereotyping is and how untrue they really are.

    The plot was unbelievably reasonable and believable in most aspects. There were a few moments that would be unlikely in reality but the whole book in general had a plausible plot. The modern day feel is always present throughout but sometimes the past has just as much presence. There is no segregation per say, and there are basic rules defining the number of hours slaves are allowed to work which shows a growing understanding from the general populace. However, African Americans are still treated as labor to white plantation owners and racialism still thrives in the veins of the nation. Walking by a café, Victor notices a sign which reads, “THIS IS A PREJUDICED ESTABLISHMENT” (Winters 221). This is a solemn reminder to Victor that racism will never die in his lifetime, but hope could eventually set the slaves free.

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