Esi Edugyan’s new novel mashes up two unlikely story lines—it’s part Jules Verne adventure and part heart-breaking escaped slave narrative. The heart of the story is devoted friendship and the complicated meaning of freedom. This month’s book review is Washington Black.
George Washington Black or “Wash” is an 11-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation in the year 1830. Ironically, the plantation is named Faith, although its inhabitants live in miserable conditions under a cruel and ruthless master. Wash’s only hope is a suicide pact with his mother-like protector “Big Kit” who believes that when slaves die they will return to their homeland and there, be truly free. Wash becomes separated from Big Kit when he’s strategically chosen to be the manservant of the master’s brother Christopher Wilde, known as “Titch.” Wash is terrified to be separated from Big Kit, but comes to learn that Titch is nothing like his cruel brother. Titch is a man of science and a covert abolitionist. He initially selects Wash because he is the right size to be ballast for his mysterious flying machine he calls a “Cloud Cutter.” Titch teaches Wash to read and to make calculations so he can be his research assistant in the field. He also discovers that Wash has incredible artistic gifts and he encourages him to develop them.
Their relationship strengthens when Wash suddenly finds himself in a harrowing situation—Titch abandons everything in an attempt to save him. The two escape the island in the Cloud Cutter, which ends up crashing dramatically on a ship bound for America, and the adventure truly begins . . . Throughout the novel, Wash is forced to build a life for himself. He is a young, gifted, and sadly disfigured black man in a racist world and he is constantly looking over his shoulder. Technically free, he still grapples with his past and the nature of his relationship to Titch.
A gifted storyteller, Edugyan’s historical narrative is a perfect choice for book clubs. It’s an adventurous un-put-downable page-turner that deftly examines the issues of identity, freedom, and friendship sure to garner deep discussions.
Washington Black can be found in our local libraries. Dan Compton for KPCW.