Washington Black – or Wash as he comes to be known – is an eleven year old slave at a plantation in Barbados. Wash is discovered by Christopher “Titch” Wilde – the younger brother of the plantation’s owner – to be a gifted illustrator. Spending years developing a flying machine he’s dubbed “The Cloud Cutter”, Torch convinces his brother to allow him to use Wash’s talents to illustrate his studies.
Following a murder mistakenly believed to be Wash’s doing, the pair escape the plantation and set off for Virginia, the first stop in a journey that would take each man across the globe as they evade a bounty placed on Wash’s head.
Although Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black has already been showered with awards, it is once again in the running for another accolade by being included in the 2022 CBC Canada Reads shortlist. I guess it says something about the subject matter of the other books when a novel about slavery seemed to be the “lighter” read of the bunch. Something about a chase across the globe captured my imagination and attracted me to this one first.
While this is definitely an adventurous story, the meat and potatoes of the novel deal heavily with the burden (for lack of a better word) of identity and finding one’s place in the world after being told one is undeserving of love, of respect, for so long. Wash, while having every reason to be proud of the man he becomes, finds it hard to both accept himself and allow himself to be accepted by others. Physical pain, illness and death are the more glaring results of slavery, but what happens when you survive and you’re released from the chains of oppression. How do you continue on with some semblance of a normal life?
The years of being told that you’re “less than” create a stigma that burrows deep in Wash’s brain, taking a grip on his outlook on life. And why wouldn’t that happen? It’s not like once he’s freed and arrives in Canada he’s automatically treated with warmth. While he isn’t laboring in someone’s field, he’s still treated like dirt he worked in every day.
It also brings to light the intentions of others and whether or not they are as good as they appear. While Wash is certainly grateful for the opportunity given to him by Titch, it’s not like Wash had much choice in the matter. There’s a line later on in the novel that will stick with me where Wash criticizes the motivations of the Abolitionists by saying “You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men”
While I believed the book to be very good with strong characters, brilliant writing and an engaging story, it does tend to overstay its welcome and feel a little long in the tooth toward the end. There’s some funny business surrounding the disappearance and subsequent reappearance of a character I didn’t quite buy in the end. I don’t want to take off too much from the novel overall because it is still a read I would recommend and could easily see it in the finals of Canada’s great literary debate.