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  • Writer's pictureTerrie

Imagine a world where the Civil War never happened - Underground Airlines

Slavery exists with governmental approval in the Hard Four - four states granted the legal right to own and 'discipline' slaves. Each of those 'states' essentially functions as huge prisons.

Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters

Genre: General Fiction

Published 2016, 322 pages

I picked this up for the Book Riot Read Harder 2019 challenge: alternate history - my goodness, this is a grim imagining!

"But even after all these years, I still found myself astonished daily by the small miracles of liberty. Just walking out of a restaurant with a clear head and a full stomach, holding a styrofoam box with leftover food inside it, smelling the wet asphalt, feeling a light drizzle as it condensed on my forehead. Just knowing I could take a walk around the block if I wanted to, go to a park and sit on a bench and read a newspaper."

Victor, a freed slave experiencing life outside the "Hard Four" states that still condone and embrace slavery struggles to reconcile his appreciation of life in the north with what he knows his fellow black people are enduring in the Hard Four. Set in Indianapolis, we get one possible scenario of a northern town and the "free" black people who live there - in a grim slum called Freedman Town.

What an intriguing premise - the Civil War never happened. Take a minute and consider the implications. Instead of war, the government made a deal with four states to allow slavery to exist and flourish with 'strict laws about discipline (punishment)'. And as always happens in life, people are forced into compromising positions.

"You understand what that means", he said, and I did. Violence had always been behind our conversations. What's behind everything, what's under everything. Violence."

I think Winters does an excellent job of portraying a very conflicted man (Victor). He started life as a slave; he escaped but is picked up by the government and coerced into becoming a slave hunter, forced to hunt and return his people to slavery. Every day he wishes for his own freedom. Eventually events put him in an untenable position and his well constructed mental walls begin to crumble.

"This is what happens: shit gets worse. It doesn't get better. It gets worse. Incidents ripple up, then they ripple away again. ... Time makes things worse; bad is faster than good; wickedness is a weed and does not wither on its own - it grows and spreads."

I liked the occasional twisted future mentions of pop culture (Michael Jackson, James Brown) just as something interesting to contribute to the already twisted premise. Being white, I make no claim to know or fully understand the feelings of slavery, but to me, the descriptions of what freedom might feel like, the longing for it, and the distress Victor experienced and buried, felt like an honest attempt to empathize.

After all the build up, the little bit of mystery and the twists of who was involved in the bigger picture, the ending felt a bit rushed and tidy, though ultimately satisfying.

Recommended and certainly lots of fodder here for book club reads. Have you read something with similar themes by a different author? Is this one on your radar?

photos by Terrie Purkey, sky and Monument Circle, Indianapolis, IN

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