© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Novel Posits An Alternative Reality Where the Civil War Never Happened

"Underground Airlines," by Ben H. Winters. (Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company)
"Underground Airlines," by Ben H. Winters. (Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company)

Author Ben H. Winters‘ best-selling 2016 novel “Underground Airlines” is set in present day, but in an America where Abraham Lincoln never took office and slavery is legal in four states.

Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti revisits a conversation with Winters from last July about the novel, which is out in paperback on July 18, and the difficulties that he had as a white author dealing with such a racially charged topic.

Book Excerpt: ‘Underground Airlines’

By Ben H. Winters

At 9:49 p.m. I stood from the wobbly wooden desk and stretched, raising my hands until they grazed the low ceiling of the hotel room. I felt around in the coat I had taken off and found a pack of Babas, tapped it on the edge of the desk, peeled off the foil, and took out a single cigarette.

At exactly 9:50 my cell phone rang. It always rang at 9:50 exactly.


“Good evening, Victor,” said the voice on the other end, low and even. “How is your progress?”

That’s what Mr. Bridge always said — every time — when a case was on, when a file was active. He always called at 9:50, and his voice always sounded the same.

“She’s doin’ great, thanks,” I said. “How’s your mother?”

Mr. Bridge didn’t laugh. He never laughed. He repeated himself. “How is your progress?”

“So far so good.” I slipped out onto the little balcony. The room was on the second floor, and I could smell the bitter fumes of the parking lot. “To be honest with you, it would be a lot better if I had the full file.”

“You will.”

“So you’ve said.” I lit the Baba and took a drag.

“Janice will post the full file by tomorrow noon at the absolute latest. It will be available for download from the second server.”

“Yes, Massa. Sho’ nuff.”

Cold silence. No chance of getting a laugh out of Mr. Bridge on that one. I trusted his assurances about the file. My handler at the US Marshals Service was a serious man, and he rarely made promises on which he did not deliver. And even with the full file being unaccountably late, I already knew the most important de- tails. A Person Bound to Labor had escaped. His service name was Jackdaw. His PIN was 78312-99. The company to whom he owed service was a textile plantation called Garments of the Greater South, of Pine Woods, Alabama, a Tuscaloosa suburb.

A man had run. It was my job to find him. “Victor? How is your progress?”

I took a quick drag off the Baba. “Well, the good father and I broke bread. My name is Dirkson. My wife is Gentle, and she is bound to subterranean service in Carolina.”

More silence on the other end. Mr. Bridge, not interested in the nitty-gritty. Mr. Bridge, waiting for information. He and I had never met face-to-face, but we’d been talking on the phone now going on six years, and I had a clear picture in my mind of the man behind his desk in Gaithersburg. Upright behind his computer keyboard, with a round pale face and pink jowls. A conservative mustache, maybe, thick but well kept. Eyes flat like silver dollars.

“The only snag is,” I said, “our friend Barton does not deal in runners. Not him and not his church. Not anyone he’s ever met. He was shocked by the very idea.”

“He’s lying.” “Yeah. No shit.”

“He’s sniffing you out.” “Let him sniff.”

“You’ll get to him.” “I’ll try.”

Bridge repeated himself. Not insistent, not chastising, just a statement of fact. “You’ll get to him.”

This was how the man talked: clear pronouncements of uncomplicated truth. Never in our years of working together had I detected a note of sarcasm or subtlety. His tone was always the same, cold and unbending, like iron, the hint of a southern accent coming up off his voice like the whisper of smoke from a gun barrel. You’ll get to him.

My arrangement with Mr. Bridge was simple. Clear as a search-light. Strong as the law.

Under the Fugitive Persons Act, those who escape from service are to be captured and returned, anywhere they are found in the United States, slave state or free. All law enforcement agencies are obliged to assist in these operations when called upon (as, indeed, “all good citizens” are so obliged), but it is the US Marshals Service that is specifically charged with the job. This law was passed in the ancient year of 1793 under its old name, but it’s been updated repeatedly: strengthened in 1850, reinforced in 1861, revised and strengthened a half dozen times since. When, in 1875, Congress at last ended slavery in the nation’s capital, the slaveholding powers were appeased by the raising of fees for obstruction. When President Roosevelt, in 1935, proposed the creation of a “comprehensive regulatory framework” for the plantations (and the Bureau of Labor Practices to enforce it), he quieted howling southern senators with a sweeping immunity bill, shielding US marshals from zealous northern prosecutors.

Tit for tat. Give and take. Negotiation and conciliation. Com- promise. It’s how the Union survives.

People still find ways to evade the burdens of the FPA, though. Local sheriffs sandbag investigations; state legislatures pass thinly veiled personal liberty laws, no matter how many times the Supreme Court sends them back stamped Unconstitutional. Plenty of “good citizens” go to jail every year rather than lift a finger to assist a slave-hunting marshal. Since 1970, African American law enforcement officers are allowed to claim nonparticipation under the Moore amendment.

The US Marshals Service, therefore, has needed to find other means of pursuing its mission.

That was me. I was “other means.” A man with no name, a quasi-employee of a clandestine branch, moving from city to city, job to job, under the supervision of a voice on a Maryland telephone. Bridge assigned me my cases, but my tactics were up to me. I pursued my cases efficiently and effectively, and as long as I did that, my own past remained buried. I remained in the North and free. Give and take. Negotiation and conciliation. Compromise.

When we were done on the phone I was feeling low and mean, which is how I always felt after talking to Mr. Bridge. Certain emotions were bubbling up in my stomach, close to my throat. Certain kinds of memories were rattling their chains. As always. I flicked away the butt of the shitty Pakistani cigarette and stared out from the darkness of the balcony into the greater darkness of the parking lot, feeling as if I barely existed at all.

I did, though. I was real, and the case was real. Somewhere in this city there was a lonesome runner, terrified and tired and over- whelmed by the sights and the lights of the free world, and I was going to find him. Have him dragged home. Home.

The full file would come tomorrow, like Bridge said. Tomorrow my search would begin in earnest.

Excerpted from the book Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, published on July 5, 2016 by Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2016 by Ben H. Winters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.