Victor is an African-American bounty hunter in America, but it&’s not an America we know or would want to. This is a parallel country in a modern day where that most abhorrent of history&’s darkest moments, slavery, still exists. Although most of the Union has abandoned slavery, four hardline states still cling to the practice, thanks to the divergent point in this alternative timeline being when Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator assassinated early on in his career never fulfilling the destiny for which we remember him in our world.
Victor is a freed slave, given his liberty on one condition: he hunts down slaves who have run away from their indentured lives on the plantations of the South, and tries to find traces of the secret Underground Airlines that helps slaves flee to Canada or the more liberal states. Winters does an amazing job of painting a world that never was but, in his hands, is frighteningly plausible. Because the rest of the Union is complicit in the slavery still practised by the “Hard Four” states that refuse to capitulate, America has earned the wrath of the rest of the world, who have imposed trade embargoes on the country.
But life goes on, and we follow Victor, a well-drawn, conflicted and morally ambiguous character, as he tracks those who have made a bid for freedom, at the same time that he is tormented by his own memories of life under the grinding heel of slavery. Underground Airlines is very reminiscent of the 1992 novel by Robert Harris, Fatherland, in which Germany won the World War and the horrors of the Holocaust were never brought to light. Chief among the similarities is that we must remember, while reading, that the characters don’t see the terrible times they are living through in the same way we do — they don’t know any different.|
And, like Fatherland, Underground Airlines propels Victor towards a shocking discovery as his investigations lead him to uncover the terrible truth about the life that he and his fellow Americans, while not necessarily condoning, do take for granted.
There has been some discussion about whether Winters — a white writer — is the best person to tell this story, but as he has said in interviews, the episode of slavery is something that affects all Americans and is a story that belongs to everyone. Those debates aside, he has crafted a thrilling, tightly plotted thriller that gives us a stark reminder about history and how we are doomed to repeat it if we don’t learn from it. With the rise of Donald Trump and his rhetoric of hate in the American presidential campaign, Winters could not have written a more timely novel.