by Esi Edugyan
"What did I feel? What would anyone feel in such a place? My chest ached with anguish and wonder, an astonishment that went on and on, and I could not catch my breath. The Cloud-cutter spun, turned gradually faster, rising ever higher. . . The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm-fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous." (p 105)
The story of George Washington Black is one of the odyssey of a young boy through his growth to manhood. In this case the young boy is a slave on a plantation in Barbados. Born on that plantation and raised by his mother Big Kit, young Wash, as he is called, is presented with a unique opportunity when Christopher Wilde, the brother of the Master of the Plantation, chooses Wash to be his assistant in his ventures exploring the natural world. Soon Wash enters into a world where the possibility of his escape from a life in chains changes from fantasy into reality. The reality he experiences includes many adventures that seem to be closer to the realm of the fantastic than that of the everyday.
The novel opens in 1830 where the English family named Wilde owns Faith plantation in Barbados. Wash narrates the story and is a slave who was born on the plantation in the year 1818. The master of the plantation is Erasmus Wilde, who is cruel and sadistic towards the slaves. Kit, "Big Kit" to Wash, is a female slave who takes care of Wash—says that she and Wash will be reincarnated in Africa after they die. One day, Erasmus’ younger brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde—arrives on the island. He is a scientist and inventor, and he hopes to test his new hot air balloon design on a nearby mountain. Titch is an abolitionist and finds the methods of his cruel brother abhorrent.
Titch enlists Wash as an assistant, and he teaches Wash to read, write, and draw. Wash is fascinated by drawing finds he has a special ability to sketch images of the natural world. Titch continues working on his hot air balloon, but, due to an accidental gas explosion from the balloon, Wash suffers burns on much of his face and body that will stay with him for life. Titch and Erasmus’ cousin Philip comes to visit, unfortunately Philip suffers from depression and soon kills himself. Titch believes that Erasmus will likely accuse Wash of killing Philip and will kill Wash as a means of spiting Titch. So Titch and Wash escape using the hot air balloon and then gain passage by boat to Norfolk, Virginia. There, a kind sexton gives them temporary shelter. In the meantime Erasmus hires a bounty hunter to retrieve Wash. Titch next takes Wash with him north to Canada, where they meet with James Wilde, Titch’s father, who is on a scientific expedition. After James refuses to help secure Wash’s safety from Erasmus, Titch devolves into a frenzy of despair and wanders off into the wilderness.
With Titch gone, Wash travels to Nova Scotia to hopefully live and work in peace. He is about 16 years old by that time. The British Empire abolishes slavery, but he still witnesses and experiences instances of racial tension and persecution. Wash befriends a young woman named Tanna Goff, who is from England. Her father is the renowned marine zoologist Geoffrey Goff, who is in Canada collecting specimens for an exhibition in London. Goff hires Wash as an assistant and illustrator, allowing Wash to further develop his talents. Unfortunately, the bounty hunter catches up with Wash; however he escapes only after learning that Titch is alive and in England. A romance begins to develop between Tanna and Wash. Wash conceives of having an exhibition of live sea creatures in London. Wash and the Goffs return to London to execute this plan.
In the concluding section of the novel we find Wash with the Goffs in London. However Wash still desires to try to find Titch. His further adventures take him to Amsterdam and Morocco as the novel ends.
I found the novel endlessly fascinating with both the story of Wash's growth into a successful young man and Titch's search for meaning in his life compelling narratives. The plot at times bordered on the fantastic, but the strength of the characters overcame any weakness in the story-line. This novel from the pen Esi Edugyan is worthy of consideration by all who enjoy historical adventures.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018.