The premise of Underground Airlines is incredibly strong: imagine the present day, complete with modern technology, industry, and trade, but if the American Civil War never happened and slavery was never outlawed in the South. And then imagine an intricately plotted, deeply felt, tautly designed novel about that world.
Of course I wanted to read Underground Airlines for the story, and I know you’d like it for that, too. But I was not prepared for how well Ben Winters, the author, brought the issues home in a way that caused me to think carefully, and perhaps uncomfortably, about my own world.
The book is set in Indianapolis, which happens to be the city in which I live, so that already felt personal. So many things are right on and familiar about the world Winters imagines, and then Winters drops in a grim and startling facet of slavery that jars you in its incongruity. It’s not just the slavery (made infinitely more sickening by it’s modern setting–truly, this is an important narrative to read–history makes slavery feel remote and like maybe there were fringes that weren’t that bad but truly, really, evil is evil all the way down) of the “Hard Four” Southern states that still allow slavery, but the soft racism of the North (this is definitely a thing in our own world–and something that surprised me about living in the North), the deliberate, callous ignorance of people who’d rather save a few dollars on a t-shirt than buy one that was ethically sourced, the smug superiority of freedom activists who still don’t actually care enough about people as people, even as they spout platitudes about injustice.
Underground Airlines would make an excellent book club selection. It’s a fantastic story–fast-paced, full of action and nuanced characters, and a complex mystery that only unravels at the very end. But it’s also a tremendously challenging book from an ethical perspective. We still have slavery in our world (Cheap t-shirts? Cheap coffee? Cheap chocolate? Yes, we’re implicated.), and we still have people who are convinced they are more of a person than someone a different color, nation, or gestational age than they are. And those of us who do care almost certainly aren’t doing enough about it. I don’t even pray about it very often. A riveting, thought-provoking, convicting story. I think you should read this one.
“I don’t know,” he said. “How can we let him live? A man like this?”
“A man like this?” I said softly. “What’re you? What’re you?”
Note: If you’re interested in the topic of modern day slavery, I highly recommend Gary Haugen’s book, The Locust Effect. It’s a difficult read, but a crucial topic.
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