Monday, December 10, 2018

Book Review: "Washington Black" by Esi Edugyan

"How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them?"

George Washington ("Wash") Black is an 11-year-old slave growing up on a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830. He has felt the cruelty of his master and his overseers, and seen the violence with which other slaves are treated. But when the master dies, there is little time to rejoice, as the new master appears to be equally, if not more, twisted and sadistic.

Wash is surprised and frightened when he is pulled from the fields to become the manservant to the master's eccentric brother. Christopher Wilde, or Titch, as Wash calls him, is a man of science, a man desperate to study the natural world around him and make brilliant discoveries. Titch treats Wash as his research assistant, and under Titch's tutelage, Wash's talent for nature drawing begins to flourish.

Titch's greatest dream is to soar through the skies in the Cloud-Cutter, a balloon-like contraption he has designed. No one, Wash included, believes it will ever be able to leave the ground or travel far, yet Titch is determined to make sure it is ready for the right conditions. And when a man dies, and Wash is the leading suspect, Titch and Wash know they must disappear far from Barbados—and they hope the Cloud-Cutter will help them get on their way.

The two make their way across the Atlantic, traveling up the east coast of the U.S., up into Canada and eventually, to a remote outpost in the Arctic. All the while they live in fear that the bounty hunter searching for Wash will find them, but they fail to understand that black men are treated the same way no matter where they are.

"It had happened so gradually, but these months with Titch had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind, I could cast off all violence, outrun a vicious death. I had even begun thinking I'd been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth's bounty, and to invent; I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order. How wrong-headed it had all been. I was a black boy, only—I had no future before me, and little grace or mercy behind me. I was nothing, I would die nothing, hunted hastily down and slaughtered."

When Titch and Wash are separated, Wash realizes for the first time that he is the only person he can count on to save himself and change his life's circumstances. His journey takes him through Canada, to England, Amsterdam, and the windswept deserts of Morocco. Amazingly, he learns the lessons it takes men their entire lives to learn (if that), lessons about betrayal, love, identity, independence, and self-worth.

Washington Black is a tremendously thought-provoking look at a boy who becomes a man as most of the world looks at him as less than that. Wash knows he is more than people believe he is, yet proving that to them—and himself—causes more emotional pain, and puts him at great risk. He is a tremendously fascinating character, one it will be very hard to forget.

Esi Edugyan is a magnificent storyteller, and in addition to the suspenseful, emotional, powerful parts of her story, she does a fantastic job with imagery as well, as her characters travel across the world. This book is a meditation on what freedom truly is, and how we are just as responsible for freeing ourselves as those whom have kept us captive. It is a story that will make you think, it will make you angry at times, and in the end, it will make you feel.

I've never read anything of Edugyan's before, but I was tremendously impressed with her talent. This isn't necessarily a fast-paced book although it never felt slow. I just immersed myself in Wash's incredible journey.