This is a work with "alternative facts," but that it is why "Underground Airlines" is a work of fiction. But more like Picasso's "Art is the lie that tells the truth." There is a lot of truths to be found in this narration with bits that illustrate current conditions. As with time travel when one event is changed all the subsequent events are effected, but author Ben H. Winters likes to include familiar names to the changed circumstances. Also it is a compelling mystery.
The Civil War never happened as Abe Lincoln was assassinated in Indianpolis on his way to his inauguration. As a compromise back in 1861 the United States legalized slavery and required those not practicing slavery to respect it. Four hard States (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Caroline) actively used slavery to current times, but much of law enforcement, both white and black sympathized with abolition so the slavers hired people like the protagonist. Victor, is actually partly black, but somehow got trapped in a job he despises, hunting down and returning runaways.
Canada is referred to as a safe haven, several times. A place where the slave hunters did not have to be respected. We Canadians can be a bit self-righteous, but underneath we have our prejudices, but are superficially relatively polite.
A football reference seemed to imply that black football players could be rented out. James Brown was brought to the north as a slave band, but escaped to Canada. Ironically sports and music were two of the first breakthroughs for blacks as whites slowly came to enjoy at least some talents of African Americans. Yet we have generally used this appreciation as a stereotype that limited our ability to appreciate them as equal humans.
Racism is still strong in the north. Flags with "1819" on them are explained as representing the year before 1820 when slavery was abolished in Indiana. Similar to the Confederate flag that symbolizes the "good ole days." The word "boy" is used as a slur.
Little bits of revised history are brought in spaced throughout the story. Martin Luther King Jr. played a key role in abolition in Texas and then was killed. Other protests occurred in Selma, Alabama. The United States withdrew from the United Nations in 1973.
In 1927 a Clean Hands Act was passed in Massachusetts to make it illegal to possess, sell or consume any slave made products. After a Supreme Court decision other states adopted their own version of the act. But the slave manufacturers found a way to re label their products in another country and sell them back into the states as they were that much cheaper.
Recently read, "The Half has never been told" about the critical contribution of slavery to American capitalism. I was surprised to learn that brutality, carefully calculated could dramatically boost the efficiency of slaves. "Underground Airlines" suggests that science and technology would be used to improve the profitability of slave labour. Check out: http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2016/12/the-half-has-never-been-told.html
What makes mysteries so compelling is missing information or misinformation. You never know the full story, until the end, if ever. You are being teased and you can't help wanting to move forward, at least with a well written mystery. Nobody, including the protagonist is quite what they appear to be and you are never sure what their motivations are.
The author Ben Winters has written 7 previous novels and has won awards for both mystery and science fiction.
I have since read the Pulitzer prize winner "The Underground Railroad" that confused me with a similar title. http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2017/05/the-underground-railroad.html