Book Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications:

Esi Edugyan, with the highly acclaimed novel Washington Black (one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2018!), has written a harsh but touching story of a runaway slave and his journey to find identity and his place in the world. The title character, Washington Black, or Wash as he comes to be known, is a field slave early in life on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Watched over by a female slave named Big Kit, his world is one of unceasing labor and vicious treatment at the hands of the plantation owner and overseers. Erasmus Wilde, whose family owns Faith Plantation, rules over it with brutality, displayed in his almost casual violence towards the slaves, viewing them truly as mere property. Sugar plantations were historically notorious in the Caribbean for their awful and inhumane working conditions. Therefore, it is not unrealistic that Erasmus treats his slaves in such a manner, something he explains to his brother Christopher: ‘My language cannot offend her. She has no sensibilities to offend . . . They are not the help, Titch. They are the furniture.’

Christopher, or Titch as he likes to be called, is revealed to be a man of science and an abolitionist. The relationship between Titch and Wash is akin to that of a school teacher and pupil, its genesis coming in a random encounter. Wash helps with dinner in the Wilde mansion for the first time on a night that Titch is there. He is apparently the suitable size to be Titch’s second in the cloud-cutter, a balloon propelled flying machine, as the ‘ballast’ to make the invention work properly, and thus becomes a scientific assistant. This allows him to discover his talent as an artist and to nurture his ability to acutely observe and draw the world around him. Early in the novel, Wash talks very little. He sees the act of speech as something that could possibly get him into trouble and gives it little value. However, as he gets older and is finally aware of his own self-worth, he becomes more confident that his thoughts and opinions matter. A horrific death on the plantation eventually drives the narrative and the progression of Wash as a character, leading him and the reader to far-flung places such as Canada, England, and Morocco.

Whereas the story is fantastical and full of wonder, so are the characters that Wash encounters throughout his myriad travels. Beginning on Barbados with Big Kit, the Wilde brothers, and their cousin Phillip, Wash encounters people that both foster his talents and mean him ill will. In Canada, where Wash finds a form of freedom, he falls in love with the enigmatic Tanna Goff, who is also a refugee in a world that sees her as an outsider simply because of the dumb luck of birth. A former slave catcher named Willard tries to murder him out of pure spite long after the abolition of slavery back in Barbados. It does not exist in this man’s worldview that Wash is an equal, a human being trying to live his life as best he can. Human relationships truly drive Edugyan’s story. Later in the book, Wash declares that one ‘cannot know the true nature of another’s suffering,’ to which Titch replies, ‘but you can try your damnedest not to worsen it.’

Washington Black would be a good read for those who enjoy a number of different genres. It is a beautiful work of historical fiction, as you truly feel the time and place, experiencing a society with both brutal stratifications and wondrous creativity (as shown in the stark difference between brothers Erasmus and Titch). It is also a tale of adventure and travel, as Wash and the other characters find themselves in locales that they could not have imagined earlier in their lives. There are even some elements of magical realism, as a sense of wonder prevails throughout the book. We feel what the characters feel, that a flying machine such as Titch’s cloud-cutter and the idea of putting living sea creatures in giant tanks are the things of fantasy. One warning: the book deals heavily with slavery and all the horrors that come along with it. There are graphic descriptions and scenes of brutal violence that can be shocking. Nonetheless, Edugyan has created a rich, intense narrative full of complex characters that both intrigue and frustrate. It would be a worthy addition to your historical fiction reading list.

Washington Black is currently available for checkout at the McWherter Library.

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