A dazzling new novel about a boy who rises from the ashes of slavery to become a free man of the world. George Washington Black, or "Wash," an eleven-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is terrified to be chosen by his master...
Washington Black is the third novel by Canadian author Esi Edugyan. The novel was published in 2018 by HarperCollins in Canada and by Knopf Publishers internationally. A bildungsroman, the story follows the early life of George Washington "Wash" Black, chronicling his escape from slavery and his subsequent adventures. The novel won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
George Washington "Wash" Black is born into slavery on the Faith Plantation in Barbados. He is raised by Big Kit, another slave, who was born in Dahomey and remembers a life before slavery. When Wash was eleven, the owner of the plantation dies and the plantation is turned over to his nephew, the extraordinarily cruel Erasmus Wilde. Wash's life continues on much as it did before, with back breaking labour in the fields, until he and Big Kit are called to serve in the main house. There he meets Wilde's younger brother, Christopher "Titch" Wilde, a scientist, who enlists Wash as his manservant. Titch teaches Wash to read and cook and, after noticing he is a prodigious artist, allows him to focus on drawing. Titch and Erasmus are later joined by their unpleasant cousin Philip. Titch enlists Wash's help in the construction of a hydrogen airship, and as a result of this Wash receives serious facial burns in a gas explosion.
Philip eventually reveals to Erasmus and Titch that their father has died, leading Erasmus to hatch a plan to move back to England for a few years, leaving Titch in charge. He furthermore refuses to sell Wash to Titch, having become aware both of how close they are and of Wash's artistic talents. While arrangements are still being made, Phillip leads Wash to the cloud-cutter and then kills himself in front of Wash. When Wash reveals what has happened Titch realizes that Erasmus will murder Wash in retaliation for Phillip's death. To save Wash the two escape on the cloud-cutter. Due to a sudden storm, they only make it to sea where Titch directs them to crash into a merchant ship. There they meet the German captain Bendikt Kinast and his brother, the ships doctor Theo Kinast. Though the brothers guess that Wash is a runaway slave, they nevertheless decide to take Titch and Wash to Virginia.
In Virginia, Titch learns that his brother has hired a bounty hunter to capture Wash, a Mr. Willard. While there they also meet up with a penpal of Titch's named Edward Farrow, who is an abolitionist. While at Farrow's Titch also learns that his father may still be alive, prompting him to decide to go to the Arctic to see him. Farrow and Titch offer Wash the opportunity to escape to Upper Canada where former slaves are able to live in freedom. Wash declines and decides to continue on his travels with Titch, joining him on his trip to the Arctic.
In the Arctic, Titch learns that his father is in fact alive, but Wash is surprised that their reunion is so cold, and Titch's father is indifferent to his son. Wash urges Titch to tell him that they are on the run from Erasmus, but rather than helping him, Mr. Wilde is indifferent to his sons and their quarrel. Devastated by his father, Titch decides to leave the Arctic and Wash behind. Though Wash tries to follow him he is unsuccessful, and Titch disappears during a snowstorm. Mr. Wilde tries to find him, but after searching for several days he comes back empty-handed and dies of a fever. No longer under the protection of either Wilde, Wash decides to take Titch's advice and resettles in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. From the ages of thirteen to sixteen, Wash lives a life of fear, afraid that the bounty on his head will be collected. After spying some jellyfish on the docks, he remembers his interest in illustration and turns to that passion anew.
He meets Tanna, a fellow aspiring illustrator and the daughter of renowned marine biologist G.M. Goff. Wash works with Goff and Tanna to collect and illustrate marine specimens, and has the novel idea of creating an aquarium. Tanna and Wash eventually fall in love and have sex after Wash is attacked by Mr. Willard. Wash had fought off Willard's attack, knifing him through the eye, but had been injured himself.
Getting word that Titch may be alive, Wash follows Tanna and Goff to London, where the three begin work on their aquarium. Wash and Tanna look for information into Wash's past life and discover that Big Kit is Wash's mother. Wash attends Willard's public hanging for murder at Newgate Prison.
Wash and Tanna eventually track down Titch in Marrakesh, Morocco. In the deserts outside of Marrakesh, Wash finds Titch living alone with a young Moroccan boy. Wash confronts Titch about their time together and his abandonment of Wash. A desert storm comes down upon the camp and, having received no satisfactory answer from Titch, the book ends with Wash beginning to walk off into the swirling sand.
Esi Edugyan (born 1978) is a Canadian novelist.She has twice won the Giller Prize, for her novels Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black.
Esi Edugyan was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta; her parents were immigrants from Ghana.She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria, where she was mentored by Jack Hodgins. She also earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.
Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, written at the age of 24,was published in2004 and was shortlisted for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2005.
Despite favourable reviews for her first novel, Edugyan had difficulty securing a publisher for her second fiction manuscript. She spent some time as a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany. This period inspired her to drop her unsold manuscript and write another novel, Half-Blood Blues, about a young mixed-race jazz musician, Hieronymus Falk, who is part of a group in Berlin between the wars, made up of African Americans, a German Jew, and wealthy German. The Afro-German Hiero is abducted by the Nazis as a "Rhineland Bastard". Several of his fellow musicians flee Germany for Paris with the outbreak of World War II. The Americans return to the United States, but they meet again in Europe years later.
Published in 2011, Half-Blood Blues was announced as a shortlisted nominee for that year's Man Booker Prize, Scotiabank Giller Prize, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and Governor General's Award for English-language fiction. Edugyan was one of two Canadian writers, alongside Patrick deWitt, to make all four award lists in 2011
On November 8, 2011, she won the Giller Prize for Half-Blood Blues. Again alongside deWitt's work, Half-Blood Blues was shortlisted for the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. In September 2012, in a ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio, Edugyan received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction for Half-Blood Blues, chosen by a jury consisting of Rita Dove, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker and Simon Schama.
In March 2014 Edugyan's first work of non-fiction, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, was published by the University of Alberta Press in the Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture Series. In 2016 she was writer-in-residence at Athabasca University in Edmonton, Alberta.
Her third novel, Washington Black, was published in September 2018.It won the Giller Prize in November 2018, making Edugyan only the third writer, after M. G. Vassanji and Alice Munro, ever to win the award twice. Washington Black was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
Washington Black opens on a 19th-century sugar plantation in Barbados and launches into the horrors of that experience from the child’s-eye view of the eponymous Washington Black, an 11-year-old slave. But it would be a mistake to think that Esi Edugyan’s Man Booker-longlisted third book is an earnest story of colonial slavery.
Just over 10 pages from the start, in a second beginning, Wash tells us he was a “freeman” by the age of 18, and it is clear that Edugyan is coming at her subject sideways, not with gritty realism but with fabular edges, and as much concerned with the nature of freedom as with slavery, both for her white characters and black.
This is, in fact, less a book about the effects of slavery and more about the burden, responsibility and the guilt of personal freedom in a time of slavery. “What does it feel like, Kit? Free?” Washington asks Big Kit, a female fellow slave who is, for a time, his protector.
She tells him that it is a matter of being able to “go wherever it is you wanting.” He heads towards this goal for free movement, experiencing both the privilege and the guilt from the gradations of freedom afforded him. He is first freed from the daily brutality of field slavery after being selected by the plantation owner’s kinder brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, to become his personal assistant. He is later an artist and assistant to a natural scientist called Dr Goff.
There is, initially, a hot-air balloon escape from the Barbados plantation to Virginia, then the Arctic wastes, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco. It is busy plotting but Edugyan’s intellectual inquiries are tucked neatly inside it, though one initially wishes that Edugyan had stayed on the Barbados plantation a little longer. Her descriptions of the terror there resemble the striking aesthetics of Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave, which set a slowed-down and meticulous cruelty against moments of equally slow, still beauty. The beauty here lies in Edugyan’s language, which is precise, vivid, always concerned with wordcraft and captivating for it.
Images of slave life are the most powerful of the book, and Big Kit is a formidable creation – a quietly seething figure rather like the strong, suffering women from Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, and again, one wishes that Edugyan had not decided to abandon her so early on.
But the story is broader and more ambitious in its scope. In between Washington’s apprenticeships, slavery is abolished but Washington finds himself stalked by its spectre in the form of a bounty hunter, years after abolition. The hunter, in some respects, is a manifestation of internalised enslavement. Washington is terrified by his early freedom – he is left by Titch when he still a boy – and spends years trying to undo its internalised scars. Even before he is left by Titch, he feels an existential fear of freedom, its capacity to unfix his identity and “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.”
Edugyan’s last Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Half Blood Blues (2011), featured a black teenage music genius in Hitler’s Germany. This book continues a conversation begun then, about the power and privilege of genius in a time of tyranny through Washington’s talent for drawing, which is first noticed by Titch, though under-explored here. The talent gives him greater currency among other slaves and buys him degrees of freedom, though he later reflects – in passing – on creativity as a means of inner liberation. “At the easel I was a man in full, his hours his own, his preoccupations his own.”
He is, by the end, a scientist as well as an artist, not so much a slave assistant as an accomplished man in his own right, fighting for official recognition of his skills.
In a recent essay on the historical silence around black scientific achievement, Edugyan asks: “If science is a kind of conversation, how much have we lost in the silences?” Washington sees the failure of colour-blind science clearly – perhaps too clearly. His story becomes increasingly mythic, heading beyond freedom, toward empowerment. It’s not what readers who are wedded to realism might want, but Edugyan’s fiction always stays strong, beautiful and beguiling.
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