Over the years, apologists for the American South have said that the civil war was really an unnecessary conflict: slavery was becoming less profitable and would have faded away on its own within decades. Given the war’s destructiveness and the more than 600,000 killed, they say, another couple of generations of enslaved Americans would have been acceptable.
Ben Winters’ vivid, moving ninth novel, Underground Airlines, turns this historically and morally dubious idea on its head. The story takes place in an alternate-history, present-day America whose civil war was averted by a last-minute compromise that allowed the South to keep its black slaves. Since then most of “Dixie” has ended human bondage, but four states, the “Hard Four”, remain slave-owning, their unpaid, captive labour powering modern, cutting-edge, billion-dollar businesses in a United States constitutionally obliged to respect their shackles. Enslavement has proven to be profitable after all.
This constitutional obligation includes the necessity of capturing and returning slaves who’ve escaped to the north, a task performed vigorously by the United States Marshal Service and with cool competence by its heavily aliased undercover agent, sometimes called Victor. Victor is black and an ex-slave himself. His continued liberty depends on his success at preventing the illegal abolitionist movement, known metaphorically as the “Underground Airlines”, from spiriting the fugitives to freedom in Canada. He has captured more than 200 of them. His latest search is for a runaway named Jackdaw, but the investigation eventually leads to a vast conspiracy that tests his wounded, suppressed conscience, and eventually requires him to return south.
A master of disguise and impersonation, Victor is very good at what he does. “That’s the problem with doing the devil’s work,” he muses. “It can be pretty satisfying, now and again. Pretty goddam satisfying.” At the same time, burdened by memories of his enslaved youth, he yearns to be “done with this approximation of a human existence, with bending not only my abilities but my real human soul to the sinister will of an authoritarian state.”
The America through which Victor pursues his quarry is fairly recognisable, with all the conveniences of the contemporary world — cell phones, computers — as well as its urban poverty and structural racism. The fictional country is not as racially integrated as the actual America has become, but in both countries the legacy of black servitude continues to poison every aspect of national life.
The carefully worked-out politics and mores of Winters’ fictional America mock our own, slyly satirising our blind-spots and compromises. Most northerners oppose slavery and there’s an active campaign against it, but it’s led by whites; free black activists are kept subordinate, as they were during the early civil rights movement. For the consumer who prefers to remain unsullied by injustice, an independent auditor certifies the “cruelty-free” supply chain of goods guaranteed not to be slave-produced — but it’s really no more than a marketing tool. Even white southerners take pride in their racial progress, noting the improvement of plantation conditions. One boasts, somewhat defensively, “This is not the slavery of 50 or even 10 years ago.” Underground Airlines is in fact a very funny book.
On the surface, it’s also a thriller, with gunplay, cliffhangers and too many double-crosses to keep track of. The story often strains credibility, but it’s never less than compelling. What distinguishes Underground Airlines as literature is the acuity and penetration of Winters’ moral vision — a perception that goes far beyond any specific historical injustice.
Winters recognises that as men and women, we’re born into a world of evil, most of which is so embedded in our reality that it can’t be recognised. We come to learn that something like slavery or anti-Semitism or sexism is wrong, but that understanding requires a painful, heroic breakthrough in our mindset, some revelation or paradigm shift. Meanwhile we’re nervously aware that in the conduct of our daily lives, we may accept practices for which future generations will hate us.
Some of the novel’s most harrowing scenes are set in a slave-manned cattle slaughterhouse. In our own world, identical slaughterhouses staffed by free workers make the same hamburgers, in the same harrowing way, and this carnivorous reviewer tolerates it.
Winters allows Victor to exquisitely express our moral unease: “Sometimes it’s possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of this world different than the existing one, in which there was truer justice, heroic honesty, a clearer perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the other ones. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger’s sentence, a green impossible vision — the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.”
This alternate-alternate world is not, of course, the world in which we live, but it’s the one to which we may continue to aspire.
Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters, Century, RRP£12.99 / Mulholland Books, RRP$26, 336 pages
Ken Kalfus is author of ‘Coup de Foudre’ (Bloomsbury)
Illustration by Dan Mitchell