By Ben H. Winters
You can find alternate histories that weave a new world if the South had won the Civil War. Probably the granddaddy is the article that appeared in the November 22, 1960 issue of Look magazine, now contained in book form, If the South Had Won the Civil War, by MacKinlay Kantor. What would have happened if compromise had held, however, is a bit harder to find. Which is what makes Ben Winter’s novel so interesting at first look.
Winters’ novel blends speculation about how the U.S. might look today if the North and the South had reached a sustainable compromise on slavery mixed with suspense over a secret development in what is known as the Hard Four, that is, those four states (North and South Carolina now merged) in which slavery still exists. The weakness and strength of the novel revolves around the depth and texture of the alternative world and the suspense. What’s painted of the different world intrigues but it never feels enough. Of course, each reader will respond differently, some wishing for a more fleshed out alternate world, while others satisfied and more excited by the suspense, procedural action, and the novel’s many twists, all of which Winters pulls off well.
It’s today and the long-standing North-South comprise on slavery has created a divided and tense nation. As southern states shifted from slave to free over time, complicated and elaborate trade policies developed aimed at restricting trade with the Hard Four, a way of making everybody outside the Four feel good about themselves.
Part of the compromise covers capturing and returning fugitive slaves. Turns out that most people in the free states, including law enforcement, want no part of returning escapees to slavery. The federal government employs undercover African-American agents to ferret out and return fugitives in accordance with the compromise. These agents work at the job to maintain their own freedom. Victor, one of many assumed names, is such an agent and he is tracking down a very special fugitive called Jackdaw, though at the outset Victor doesn’t know what makes Jackdaw so extraordinary.
To find Jackdaw, Victor travels to Indianapolis, where rumors have it he may discover his quarry.There he hooks up with the Underground Airlines (no planes involved, sorry) of the title. He hopes to infiltrate the group and use them to flush out Jackdaw. But, as thrillers will have it, nothing goes as it should. He finds himself involved with a young woman and her child in search of a black man she loved, as he tries to carry out his assignment. Plus, the Underground Airlines seem to have their own agenda and appear to be using Victor to accomplish it. Then there is the nagging question of what makes Jackdaw so special. Even this is not simple and leads to its own twists and intrigue.
The real meat of the novel doesn’t come until the end of Part 1 and into Part 2. It’s here that the intrigue ramps up and that we see just what life is like in the slavery South. Many readers will wish there had been more of this, more of life in the Hard Four, more of the slavery rationalizations, the fog used to disguise a cruel system, and more about the structure of the U.S. itself. But probably, upon consideration, that would be a different kind of novel, and perhaps even a series. Leave it at, good at what it does. w/c