Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Review: Underground Airlines

I randomly selected Underground Airlines by Ben Winters after finishing a book on the history of the Civil War. It turns out, I couldn't have made a better book transition if I tried.

Underground Airlines is a mystery set in current day, USA. The catch: it imagines we didn't fight the Civil War. Instead, we agreed to the Crittendon Compromise. This proposal was made in 1860, and sought to save the Union by altering the Constitution to guarantee the permanent legality of slavery. In real life the Crittendon Compromise was shelved; not so in Underground Airlines.

As you can imagine, this relatively simple device has profound implications. Winters paints a picture of an America that's both recognizable and dystopian. Through sanitized terms ('Person Bound to Labor' instead of slave), farcical legal protections and the all mighty pursuit of compromise, Winters shows us how something as horrendous as slavery can be justified by a modern society. In short, the juxtaposition of everyday America with the cruelty of slavery is stark and terrifying.

The mystery at the book's core, as well as the characters are well done. Sure, some of twists and turns were a bit of a stretch. But overall, the book was so good that as soon as I finished it, I Googled to see if there was a sequel. (Alas, there isn't.)

Perhaps the most import aspect of the book is how it forced me to face how I personally deal with injustice. For nearl the entire book my mind wrestled with the thought experiment that Winters created. What would have happened if I'd been born into an America that practiced slavery. What would I do? What would I demand society do? Why, I'd charge in guns blazing and demand that they free our oppressed brothers!

Then it hit me: surely there are countries in the world that practice slavery today. Heck, there are no doubt those in the United States who are being crushed by similar injustice. Why aren't my guns blazing for them? Where's my outrage?

I don't know how to square the clear anger and call for action that I felt for those in the Underground Airlines' universe, with the the blissful ignorance I embrace in real life. But I do appreciate how Winters' novel has forced me to confront this disparity.

If you want a clever and thought provoking book, then Underground Airlines is for you.

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