Author Topic: HAF Book Club: June poll and discussion  (Read 1128 times)

Sandra Craft

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Re: HAF Book Club: June poll and discussion
« Reply #15 on: June 29, 2018, 03:49:40 AM »
Ok, if you guys want to start talking, I'll not look at this thread until I finish the book  ;)

I'll split the difference by posting my FB review, which avoids spoilers by leaving a lot out but covering some main points:

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winter. This is an amazingly well-written and suspenseful story of an alternate America -- one that's exactly like modern-day America in nearly every way except that the Civil War never happened and four states (called the Hard Four) still allow slavery.

We follow Victor, a former slave, on what turns out to be his last assignment for the U.S. Marshal Service. Part of the Services' duties are tracking down runaway slaves and returning them to their owners, and they commonly use other runaway slaves for their trackers. Which makes sense, the runaways who become trackers can be held hostage by the combined threat and promise of being sent back if they refuse (or fail) and being set free, eventually, if they accept, and the runaways they track are less likely to be suspicious of another black man.

Victor (not his real name, but we never learn that one and besides, he has plenty others) escaped as a boy from a slaughterhouse where he'd been born and had worked from the age of 5. He had the comfort of an older brother who'd stayed close by him till the end, protecting him as well as he could and teaching him to prepare for a better future. Castle, the brother, always had his eye on escaping.

The story goes back and forth between Victor's current life and his slave past, which I really can't get into because it turns into a minefield of spoilers, but it's a doozy.

Anyway, modern-day Victor is assigned to track down a runaway under circumstances he finds unusual and suspicious. His hunt is by turns helped and hindered by Martha, a young white woman looking for her husband, a runaway slave who was recaptured years ago, and Father Barton, a white priest who's part of the "underground airlines" and his cohorts. In the end the hunt turns out to be less about the runaway slave and more about something he stole on his way out -- something that the abolitionists hope will destroy the slave trade and that the U.S. Marshals and various higher ups want destroyed so slavery can continue.

As I mentioned, the story is very well written and held my interest thru any number of plot convolutions, and this despite my not being that much of a novel reader. And now, here are your excerpts:

Victor's thoughts on the racial politics of Northern Freedman Towns, this America's equivalent of ghettos: "Freedman Town serves a good purpose -- not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working. Freedman Town's purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say *Will you look at those animals? That's what kind of people those people are.* And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one big idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation."

And on the value, and otherwise, of forgiveness after he saves the life of his U. S. Marshals handler, a man he hates: "I could not feel that spirit of grace, not in the moment. Not after all I had been through in the preceding two weeks and in the six years before that. I would have had to be superhuman, I think, to feel that forgiveness. I was and am possessed of all human flaws and weaknesses. I did not want to forgive him, so I did not. On the other hand, I wanted to fire the gun and watch him fly backwards on the steps, but I did not do that, either. Call that even."

Because that's what it comes down to sometimes -- you can't forgive someone, but you don't hurt them either. Just call it even and move on.

Very much recommend this book.

"I think this is the prettiest world -- as long as you don't mind a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life that doesn't have its splash of happiness?"  from The Kingfisher, by Mary Oliver