Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.
“I carried that nail like a shard of darkness in my fist. I carried it like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed. I carried it like a key.”
Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.
In her trademark exquisite prose, Esi Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, unexpectedly freed by a fight between Erasmus and Christopher in which he is a proxy, he discovers that there is little call for—or acceptance of—a Black man with such skills. He is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked. His freedom proves to be a complex thing.
Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though he does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was rebelling against in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take him to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.
Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. The reader will not lack for entertainment on this account, however it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes this novel unforgettable.