Hope: The Underlying Message of Ben Winter’s Underground Airlines

Ben Winters wrote Underground Airlines (Mullholland Books, 2016) ostensibly to bring attention to the lingering pernicious affects of slavery in America, but his inventive story can also be read to show far we have come from the days when slavery was legal.

In Underground Airlines, an escaped slave––whose true name we never learn––has been coerced into serving as a slave catcher for the U.S. Marshall’s Service. Slavery persists in this alternate history as the result of a 19th century constitutional compromise that allowed each state sovereignty over the issue. In the time of the story slavery remains in four states—a situation that has engenered extremely negative consequences for the rest of the country, undermining its economic and moral status and creating an environment where life in the north for blacks is barely better than it is in the South.

In addition to the threat of his being returned to the slaughterhouse from which he escaped, a device has been implanted in the spine of Winters’ protagonist that allows his handler to track his whereabouts. To save his skin, Victor—the name his handler calls him by––has caught over two hundred escapees, but the latest case he’s been given has holes in it, and as his search for the current escapee continues, he learns something is different about this particular runaway with implications for Victor personally and for the unsettled slave compromise.

Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle––a novel that exposed conditions in slaughterhouses at the beginning of the 20th century and about which Sinclair, an avowed socialist, complained hit people in the stomach while he aimed for the head, many readers of Underground Airlines come away horrified by Winters’ depiction of this alternate world where slavery continues to exist and miss the story’s underlying message––the role individuals can play in changing the course of history.

Victor, the slave catcher, is weaned from his dispassionate perfessionalism by a white woman desperate to find out what happened to her son’s father––an escaped slave who was caught and returned. Then he learns the underlying truth behind his current case and must risk his life to make amends for the man he had become.

Winters’ depiction of a rationalized system of bound persons––the 21st century name for slaves, should remind us how different America is from the world the slaveholders made. Any prejudice and discrimination descendents of slavery experience today can hardly be compared to chattel slavery pre-Civil War or the subsequent decades of segregation and discrimination.

Attempts to claim things have not really changed that much are largely a form of political blackmail by those who are not satisfied with Washington’s handouts. They want reparations from people who had nothing to do with slavery given to people who never experienced it. That’s not to say some blacks don’t suffer disproportinately economically, but economic opportunity and legal equality in America have never come closer to the ideal than any time in our history. At the same time white nationalist groups attempting to resurrect the old South remain on the fringe with no real backing or power.

Testimony of how far we have come as a society is further evidenced by the ability of a white Jewish writer to find a publisher for a novel in which he depicts the story of a black former slave in a world where slavery has yet to be abolished. While some blacks might object in theory, if they read the novel, I think they’ll agree that Winters was equal to the task.

That’s not to say there aren’t holes in the story, or that someone can’t find a line or two to criticize, but that’s the price all fiction writers pay. I myself have written novels with female, handicapped, and black protagonists––though I am none of the above. What I’ve learned about each while trying to inhabit their world I hope comes through in a way that helps readers understand better their fellow human beings.

Ultimately every story has to stand on its own feet. No matter what prompted Winters to write Underground Airlines, he wrote a story about people placed in situations with limited options who find a way to overcome. Isn’t a hopeful ending after all what we want to believe in?

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