There’s been a buzz about Ben H. Winters new novel Underground Airlines, a daring mix of ‘slavery and sci-fi‘, which envisions a present where the Civil War never happened and follows a bounty hunter protagonist through Indianapolis and a handful of other places. I read it over the past few days, and find it an intriguing novel worth a read — both for the world that Winters has created as much for the tone and pacing of the text.
The relevance here, is that featured prominently in the story is Pogue’s Run, a hidden urban stream located in Indianapolis, mentioned in the context of the book with some great context in a recent Atlas Obscura article ‘You Can Follow a Hidden Stream Beneath Indianapolis—If You Know Where to Look’. As mentioned by Atlas Obscura, the disappearing stream is also coupled in a mysterious disappearance of the man himself, “All underground streams have a mystery about them, but Pogue’s Run has a more ghostly history than most. Its story begins with one of Indianapolis’ first white settlers, whose disappearance has never been solved, and a Scottish-born city planner with a tidy vision.”
Pogue’s body was never found, and the eventual development of the City plan by Alexander Ralston, who worked in L’Enfant and modeled the Indianapolis plan on the formality similar to DC, “…a square grid, a mile on each side, with a circular plaza in the center and four wide, stately boulevards radiating out towards each of the square’s corners. Except—in the southeast corner of the city, the gridded blocks tilted, askew. There was a black line snaking through the plan, throwing the grid off kilter. That was Pogue’s Run, ruining the city’s planned symmetry.”
In the novel itself, the current culverted underground configuration is mentioned and becomes the location for a few pivotal scenes about place. The first interaction as Victor is with Martha a woman he met along the way, looking for the father of her child. They visit an older woman, Mama Walker, whom Martha comes to borrow money. Mama Walker uses the story of the old creek to illustrate the point of what happened to the child’s father.
“It was verdant down here back here in the day, that’s what they say. I’m talking about before I was born. Understand? Before my mama was, and hers was. There was a stream here. Little creek. I got a map somewhere, somewhere in here but you can can see it too you go huntin’ through the dog shit and the broken glass out there. You can see, like, traces of it where it ran once, all those years ago. But see, the white men who were planning out the city, they didn’t like where it was, the little river, so they just…” She made a quick gesture with her hand, sweeping the air, “…ran it under the ground, built right over it, you understand? You see?”
She waited. She wanted an answer. Martha whispered, “Yes.”
I took off my glasses and wiped them on my shirt. Dope smoke wafted over from the love seat.
“They sent that little river underground, and they built their fucking ugly city over it. That’s how they do. Anything they don’t care for, anything that does not please, they use it up or they kill it or bury it and they never think of it again, you see?
Martha’s eyes were shut now. “I see.”
“So that’s what they did. Open your eyes sweetheart. Open.” Martha obeyed. “That’s what they did to your boys father. Them. White people.”
The power of the story of the burying the stream as an illustration of dominance and power is compelling, one of a number of passages that make the book powerful to read. Later in the book, the main character Victor ventures underground to find the man he is chasing, an escaped slave. He ventures through the depths in search of the runaway, from Underground Airlines:
“I cleared the trailer park and passed a jumble of picnic benches and playground equipment and stepped carefully down the slope of the ravine and swung the heavy beam of my flashlight along the creek. Now it was clear, with the water swollen by the rains, the direction the brown water was still flowing. The black mouth in the base of the shallow hill was an entrance, not an exit. This low little trickle of mud water was a kind of rivulet, a poor cousin of a creek, and this spot behind the motor court is where some long-ago engineer had diverted it.
The creek was called Pogue’s Run. I’d found it on the map. I’d looked up the story. This small waterway was discovered at the turn of the century – the eighteenth turning into the nineteenth — discovered and named and recorded, penciled in on early maps, when the city was not yet a city — when it was a gathering of huts, a stopping place on the way to other places. The small river was inconvenient for the city fathers and the grid they’d drawn. So they did just as Mama Walker said: they ran it underground.”
After determining that he would have to travel into the tunnel, Victor continues. [This passage is edited a bit for brevity to focus on the stream experience – but seriously, read the book!]
“The water in the creek was shallow, but it was rushing, pulsing a little as it rose with the rain. I walked slowly, picking out individual rocks to stand on, til I got to the mouth of the tunnel. There I got down on all fours, feeling the creek water rush around me, swallowing my hands up to the wrists and surging around my knees and feet, and looked with narrowed eyes up that infinite darkness of pipe. A cold, wet animal smell breathed back at me.
There was nothing to be done. This was it. I leaned forward and hunched my shoulders together, pushed the upper part of my body carefully forward, as a circus perfomer gingerly places his head into the lion’s mouth. I eased back and forth, back and forth, getting a sense for the width…
…I got in there okay myself. Turned off my light, stuck it back in my jacket, and eased my body all the into the hole. I splashed in the dirty rush of water, hunched forward, keeping my upper body small and bent. I walked with my hands stretched out on either side, fingertips scraping along the roughly textured walls. I walked a long time that way, bent almost parallel with the ground, genuflecting as I went, until the ceiling tapered back down and i was forced onto all fours and went awhile that way, soaking my kneecaps and my palms.
Time passed, and I didn’t know how much time, either. I just walked, an invisible man moving through the darkness.”
The scene ends with the discovery – the journey of the tunnel echoing the emotion of the main character.
“Eventually the tunnel gained some headroom, and I was able to draw up to full height. My feet echoed with wet clicks on the slimy concrete. I turned my flashlight on and followed the light, the beam wavering into strange patterns on the irregular, parabolic surfaces of the tunnel. Above my head was its thick stone shell and above there was clay and river rock and then a thin layer of topsoil and then the streets and sidewalks of the living city.
I’d walked at least two miles. The tunnel was tilting slightly downslope, and it was getting colder, too. The air was heavy and damp, thick with uncirculated oxygen and the dank smell of the water.
I was getting closer. I took out the gun I hardly ever carried but was carrying tonight. Soon I’d find it, whatever it was — the dangling padlock, the walled off chamber, the rock rolled in front of the mouth of the cave.
But when I got there, when I found the locked door, there was no lock. There was no door, even. I was sliding my palms roughly along either side of the tunnel, feeling for the narrow crack of hung door or the bulge of a handle, when the left-side wall just opened up. I turned and crouched and help up the flashlight and found a narrow gap in the tunnel wall, like a secret left there for a child to find. I got down on my hands and knees and turned off my light, although of course if he was in there — and I knew he was, I knew that he was — he’d already have seen me, seen my light bobbling down the tunnel as I cam, seen in shining into this hidey-hole on which there was no lock and no door.
… I passed into this new chamber, into deeper darkness, and empathy rose up in me. I was him. I was that man huddled in there, waiting, holding his breath, terrified by the small approaching light. My heart hammered, as his was likely hammering. I felt the sweat of fear on my brow that was the sweat of his fear.”
Such great drama – I’ll leave the rest for you to read on your own, but the use of the place in that scene is powerful stuff, which plays of the metaphorical story from Mama Walker in the beginning. The use of a real location to heighten ficitional drama I really appreciate, and not having been to Indianapolis or experienced this journey underground, good fiction writers, as always, have the innate ability to connect the reader with the experience.
Underground Airlines author Winters was brought to the underground stream by musician Stuart Hyatt, who has used Pogues Run extensively in his audio work along with providing some great photographs for the post. As mentioned in Atlas Obscura, “When Hyatt brought Winters to Pogue’s Run, the author was in the formative stages of writing his book. ‘I needed a place where my hero could literally descend and find himself underground,’finding layers under layers, of both the case he was unraveling and his own identity, Winters says. Pogue’s Run felt like the right place.”
I’d agree. Perhaps maybe even a new subgenre – hidden hydrology fiction.