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Book Nook: Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters

Ben H. Winters has written one of the most thought provoking and timely novels that has been published during this long, hot summer. One of the most polarizing presidential campaigns in many years is underway. Our first black president is preparing to leave office. One could have hoped that Barack Obama's terms in office might have allowed America to begin to address and to heal some of our racial issues. It hasn't happened.

The "Black Lives Matters" movement has drawn attention to a very serious problem; the unwarranted killings of black men and black youths by police officers. The Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has brought racial issues to the forefront of his campaign. Yes it has been a very long and extremely warm summer.

Ben H. Winters has written a book that is certain to add some new fuel to our incendiary debates about race. Here's my review of it which ran recently in the Springfield News-Sun:


Imagine for a moment that the Civil War had never happened. Imagine Abraham Lincoln had been elected president but he had never served; he was assassinated before he could ever take office. Imagine that since the Civil War hadn’t actually happened and therefore Lincoln never freed the slaves that we could have a country where slavery is still being practiced.

Some new speculative fiction grabs these notions and sprints away with them.

In his new novel “Underground Airlines,” Ben H. Winters has imagined all of these things and more. This work of alternative history is set in the present day. Winters creates a United States where four southern states, the so-called “Hard Four,” still have legal slavery. A former slave named Victor is the narrator of this provocative tale.

In Victor, Winters has created a rather complicated character. Victor, an African-American, had been enslaved. He escaped. Upon his recapture, he agreed to go to work for the U.S. Marshall’s Service as a fugitive slave hunter. Victor is good at his job. He has apprehended over 200 escaped slaves so far.

As you might guess, Victor is a conflicted soul. As the book opens, he is concentrating on his pursuit of an escaped slave. Victor is cruising the streets of Indianapolis in his Nissan Altima with Michael Jackson’s album “Thriller” cranked up on the stereo. He just had a meeting with a Catholic priest who he suspects is illegally assisting fugitives in a modern-day version of the Underground Railroad, the Underground Airlines of the book’s title.

In this alternative version of America the continued embrace of the practice of slavery has turned our nation into an international pariah. The products that are being manufactured by slave labor are inexpensive, but most countries are boycotting these goods. Those products have to find a market someplace and that requires all manner of subterfuge as to the true origins of these tainted goods.

Meanwhile Victor is cruising around enjoying freedom while being a slave hunter. Initially it doesn’t seem that he feels any sense of remorse for his actions but as we get to know his history better we begin to understand that his motivations are not as straightforward as they might appear.

Victor’s boss, the shadowy Mr. Bridge, maintains a tight rein. Every day he calls Victor at exactly the same time to inquire about his progress hunting fugitives: “Mr. Bridge didn’t laugh. He never laughed. He paused briefly, a moment of silence in bare acknowledgment that I’d said something before repeating himself.”

When Victor receives an assignment to venture back into the “Hard Four,” the remaining slave states, disguised as a slave, the tension really ratchets up. I’m not going to spoil it by saying more. Suffice it to say that “Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters is as sizzling as these hot days we have been having lately. And even though this is outlandish fiction the racial themes that underpin this novel will surely resonate with many readers.

The Book Nook on WYSO is made possible by six local library systems in southwest Ohio:  the Greene County Public LibraryWashington-Centerville Public Library, MidPointe Library SystemClark County Public Library, Dayton Metro Library, and Wright Memorial Public Library.

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