“Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters: A Book Review

Mulholland Books/Little Brown & Company, Hachette Book Group; Goldsboro Books, UK Ltd. Edition S & N.

Imagine if President Lincoln was shot before the Civil War took place and then, because of that and the greed of humankind, the Civil War never happened. If you were black and born into a slave state, there would be no way you could ever be a free man.

There were four states that embraced slavery, and even if you ran, there were hunters, most often black themselves, who worked to break into the Underground Airlines, and bring you back. There was no safe place for a slave to hide—unless they made it into Canada. And even there…

Ben H. Winters’ new book alters history and tells the story of a black man who was a slave, and his price for freedom was to become a hunter of other slaves. In this thankless quest, Jim Dirkson, free since he was 14, uncovers the horrible truth of the Underground Airlines.

With a GPS Tracker buried in the back of his neck, and a merciless handler that he contacts by cell phone, there is no escape. This is not the United States we know, yet it could be horribly close. It’s not unknown for black people to be suddenly grabbed and sold into slavery—their entire previous life erased by the press of a button on a computer.

The man we know as Jim Dirkson is closing in on a “runaway” slave who is waiting for his flight. Yet, neither of the men have any idea of the situation they’re really in.

The horrors of the jobs a slave must do include long and monotonous days. Our runaway would, for 12 hours a day, pluck the loose threads from the collars of shirts as they continuously rode up an assembly line. This is the type of job no one in his or her right mind could do for long.

unnamed-2I can remember when I had a factory job where I would watch a piece of metal the size of a paper clip move along an assembly line through a magnifying glass. The pin would move; I would press a lever and make a notch on it; the pin would move; I would press a lever and make a notch on the other side. A new pin would move into place. Work like this can make a person mad.

These were slave jobs. Imagine if, in the modern world, four states allowed people to possess a thinking, feeling man or woman based on the color of his or her skin.

“Under the Fugitive Persons Law, those who escape from service are to be captured and returned, anywhere they are found in the United States, slave state or free.” This is why Canada is the only answer or any other country that doesn’t condone slavery.

Back in history, the escape route was called the “underground railroad”; there were no aircraft. Times have changed. We have aircraft and GPS trackers, yet slavery still exists.

In “Underground Airlines,” Ben H. Winters has written his best book yet. It is certainly his most frightening tale. I saw copies of this book in the Harvard Book Store, one of my favorites, in Cambridge. If they don’t have it, they will order it in quickly.

I can’t tell the story in a way that does justice to Ben H. Winters’ telling of the narrative in “Underground Airlines,” so I won’t. I hate spoilers in book reviews and try to avoid them as much as possible. His last three books, “The Last Policeman” trilogy, won the 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The second book of the trilogy,Countdown City,” was an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction.

Ben H. Winters is truly coming into his own. Right now, Goldsboro Books in London has a Limited Edition, and the last time I checked, they had some left. I’m sure these Signed and Numbered books will be collector’s editions in the near future.

Marc D. Goldfinger is a member of the board of directors of the Homeless Empowerment Project, which publishes Spare Change news. Formerly homeless, he serves as the paper's poetry editor.

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