It was suggested that I read an alternate history book in the Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass on writing, and I was drawn to this one as it was one of the only examples that wasn’t ‘what if Hitler won the war.’ I was drawn to the concept behind this novel. The ‘what if slavery was still legal in America’s south’ seemed like a pertinent kind of what-if.
I don’t regret my choice. I loved this book.
The reason such a reading exercise was recommended was because alternate history provides a particularly exaggerated way to see ‘truth in fiction’, and this book felt like it was jam-packed with hard hitting truths that are just as valid in this version of reality as they are in the version of reality in which slavery is still legal in the south. It’s too easy to believe.
This is an alternate history of a modern-day U.S. much like ours – except that a President-elect Lincoln was assassinated before being inaugurated, shocking everyone so much that they hastily drew up Constitutional Amendments to allow 4 slavery states to remain slaveowning forevermore, instead of having a Civil War. The “Hard Four”, as the slavery states are called, are restricted to doing business with other countries, since their products are embargoed by the rest of the free states. And the Underground Railroad is still there, a highly-compartmented, secretive structure of slavery opponents who help to sneak the slaves over the border from their slave state into the free states, providing them with new identities and new lives as free human beings. A former escaped slave, threatened with being returned to servitude, has instead taken the option of becoming a highly-trained secret investigator who tracks down, and returns, escaped slaves.
I thought that this novel was very well done (bearing in mind that I’m white), in terms of giving insight into what life was like for slaves – and what things are still like for black people today. The protagonist is a very believable, ethically ambiguous character fighting his thinly-buried PTSD and embattled conscience to do what he must in order to save himself, rather than doing what he knows is morally right. My only disappointments with the book were 1) The only real speculative element (apart from a bit of tech which is probably not far off from what exists today) is that it’s alt-history. There’s not really any other science-fictional aspect to it – and the SF would be an important part of what makes a book hit my sweet spot. 2) The deus ex machina ending is a bit of a letdown. This is a disturbing, but enlightening, book – and definitely well worth reading.