I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or title, but when I when I first saw the novel Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, it didn’t look like a book I would be interested in. It didn’t have the right curb appeal for me. Maybe it’s not the book’s fault. Maybe it’s me. I read a lot of chick lit, young adult, and non-fiction books. I received a copy of this book with the 2016 cover from my local library. It’s an interesting and totally unique cover, but it doesn’t make me want to randomly pick this book up and take it home with me.
There’s an anonymous male face on the cover with the outline of an airplane obscuring the details. The typeface used for the title isn’t attention-grabbing. When I saw this cover, I assumed this was a book written for a male audience. Maybe this is a book about planes, or slavery, or slavery on a plane—but there’s a man on the cover, so it’s probably not going to be about women. I was expecting an upsetting novel, an emotional roller coaster type of story. The blurb on the cover says, “A topflight thriller that’s as emotionally searing and tragically plausible as anything in contemporary fiction.” — Lev Grossman, Author of The Magicians.
In contrast, the cover art for the 2017 edition of Underground Airlines has a completely different look and feel to it. When I see this cover, I think the world has been turned upside down. This cover makes me feel that this book is going to be filled with action. The title is at an angle, suggesting movement. The artwork is rather generic as are the blurbs:
“Astonishing.” —USA Today
“Extraordinary…A suspenseful tale.” —National Public Radio
“A book that will make you see the world in a new light.” —Washington Post
These blurbs tell the reader NOTHING. They could be the blurbs of almost any novel, any genre. The more recent cover could fit on any bookshelf. Is this young adult, chick lit, or non-fiction? Who knows? Is the protagonist male or female? Who knows? Is this book written for a male or female audience? Who knows? This cover doesn’t give up its secrets, and yet I would probably pick this book up—with the generic cover—simply because it looks like something I may have read before. Sad, but true! This book is approximately 327 pages long.
Underground Airlines is a work of Speculative Fiction or “Alternate History,” that takes place in a contemporary setting. It’s a book that explores an alternate reality where The American Civil War never happened. In this book’s version of history, slavery still exists in four states, Texas has become its own country, and most of The United States is prejudice—the majority of the population are filled with hate and fear. This book is written in three parts, in first person point of view.
(*Warning* This review contains some minor spoilers.)
Part One NORTH:
We meet our protagonist, Jim Dirkson, in a restaurant in Indiana. Jim is pleading with a priest to rescue Jim’s wife. Her name is Gentle. There’s some confusing Infodumping while we learn about the parameters of this alternate, contemporary universe. Strange phrases and words are used in this alternate reality: “Clean Hands state,” “PB,” the “Batlisch hearings.” By Chapter Three, we learn that Jim Dirkson isn’t Jim Dirkson. He goes by many different names. Jim/Victor/Brother changes names as often as people change their socks. He is an undercover agent and an Unreliable Narrator. He’s hunting down a runaway slave, Jackdaw. This realization takes place within the first 12 pages, so I don’t feel as if I’m giving away the entire plot of the story.
This book has many twists and turns. Just when you think you know where the story is headed, it changes. Fragments from the protagonist’s past are sprinkled throughout the story until the protagonist reveals his Big Secret at the end of Chapter Twenty-five, about 200 pages into the story.
Part Two SOUTH:
Our protagonist is in Alabama and we see what a modern slave state looks like in this alternate universe. There are more plot twists and turns. All seems lost by the end of this section. Part Two is only 82 pages long, but they’re action-packed.
Part Three NORTH:
Dark Secrets are immediately revealed as this novel reaches The Climax. More plot twists and an Ambiguous Ending after 23 pages.
I’m not a big fan of Speculative Fiction. (I think it’s hard enough to keep track of actual history, let alone an alternate version of events.) However, this work of fiction won’t confuse the minds of most readers.
I liked this book more than I thought I would but there’s a lot going on. There’s a couple of places where I felt as though the author lost the plot. Without giving away too much information, there’s a major event that takes place at the end of Part One involving Castle and the protagonist, and their escape attempt. When this event is rehashed in Part Three, Castle’s reaction doesn’t flow with Part One’s telling. Was this an oversite, something missed during editing? Is this an Unreliable Narrator moment? I don’t know. A part of me wondered if Castle was even real, like Fight Club.
Then there’s the character, Martha, who can’t fool a motel clerk at the beginning of this story, but becomes a gifted actress by Part TWO. Yeah…I wasn’t buying it. The author throws in quite a few Red Herrings. There are events that seem like they should have a point but don’t. There are places where your mind looks for connections that don’t pan out. This may have been done purposefully for the sake of misdirection.
This book reads more like a screenplay than a novel. There’s so much action, we never get to know the protagonist. This is not a “feelings” type of story. I would have liked to have gotten to know the protagonist better. I’d like to know how a character who isn’t able to read a flyer in a flashback is able to hack into computer years later. The hunt for “the package” seemed a bit sketchy. I’m still not exactly sure how the protagonist knew where to go and where to look.
I feel like the author was trying to use this book to make a commentary on America and its desire for cheap labor and goods. I’m not sure if this was done successfully. There’s so much misdirection happening, any life lessons that might have been gleaned are lost in all the action and plot twists.
Would I recommend this book? If you like action/adventure/spy stories, you may really enjoy this novel. I was expecting a sad, depressing book, but this wasn’t that type of story. (Although I feel like it should have been, considering the subject matter.) There are plenty of F-bombs and other colorful expletives throughout this novel, so it seems like this book would be better suited for an adult audience.
- What did you think about Martha and her role in this story?
- What did you think about Castle and his role?
- Why do you think the GGSI guard helped Jim/Victor/Brother on the train?
- Do you think Jackdaw/Kevin was purposely shot?
- Did you feel that this story ended satisfactorily, or do you feel as though this book was set up for a possible sequel?
*Feel free to respond to ANY of these possible discussion questions or write your own! I’d love to hear your thoughts!
If you’ve already written a review on your blog, please feel free to link below!
2 thoughts on “Book Club Review: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters”
My book club just finished this and I wasn’t impressed either. It felt like the author had a page limit and glossed over any exposition. I like your point about Castle because I also felt like I missed something between the two versions of the escape. And the guard helping Jim on the train felt like the author wanted it both ways, creating a tense, can’t-win situation that instead amounted to nothing. I rambled some more on my own blog and hope you don’t mind that I linked to here! Your site was a top result when I Googled for book club questions and I enjoyed the post. Cheers!
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I felt like this book could have been MORE than what it was. The potential was there.