“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

December 2nd, 2018  |  Published in November 2018

“Washington Black”, a new and much praised novel by the African-Canadian author Esi Edugyan, is a real romp of an epic.  It centers around a slave boy named Washington Black, who lives as a young boy on a sugar cane plantation in Barbados, owned by an English white family, transitioning from a father newly dead to his oldest son Erasmus, who is one of two sons.  We are told that Erasmus is viscous, and it’s clear that he is not able (or willing) to see the slaves he owns as remotely human.  Protected early by a powerful woman/mother figure named Kit, Wash (as he comes to be known) ends up a manservant to Erasmus’s brother Titch, recently arrived to pursue scientific interests, much like his father has done in the Arctic.  A cousin of the two brothers arrives for a long visit with the news that the brothers’ father has recently died, so that Erasmus is to return to England and Titch (Christopher) run the plantation.

The romp begins when Titch and Wash escape the plantation/island on a version of a helium balloon, which,  in an early accident, burns and thus marks Wash’s face forever, a neat trope on the author’s part,  so that Wash can easily be recognized by slave hunters later on.  Suffice it to say, plot-wise, that the two end up in the Arctic finding that Titch’s father isn’t dead, but has more or less escaped his upper class English life by doing scientific experiments, while living with a white man turned Eskimo who knows the ropes up there (and who is probably the father’s male lover).  Titch will vanish (when people vanish in this novel, it’s a sure shot that they’ll reappear later). Wash will meet up with a white English family, whose daughter he’ll fall in love with and his own scientific/mathematical/artistic skills will help invent ways to scoop up creatures from the sea, such as an octopus, and prepare them to exhibit in England, where, of course, Wash will be legally free, to boot.

The novel really is what was once called an adventure story, with fasntastical escapes and near misses, Wash almost recognized and captured, and his growing awareness courtesy of Tanna, his girlfriend, that perhaps Titch wasn’t all that Wash thought he was.  Edugyan truly misses the boat on the racial issues woven into and through the novel. We are only given the vaguest sense of what life was like in the original plantation; only a few incidents show Erasmus’ cruelty; one eleven year old black girl is made pregnant by Erasmus, so she’s a symbol more than a person.  Edugyan chooses to make everyone but Wash and his girlfriend Tanna pretty much asexual; one did wonder whether Titch might have been a paederast, given his obvious interest in very young boys later in the novel as well as with Wash. Wash’s growing awareness that Titch may simply have been using him for his scientific experiments, helped along by the far too astute Tanna at 20, wrestles with the master/slave relationship; Titch’s sincerity is questioned, as are his motives, but lightly, rather skimmed over by the author.  We know from Kip, the woman who’d looked after Wash until he’s brought to serve into the main house, that his father was “brilliant” and wonder whether Titch or even Erasmus may have been his father, but the author chooses to gloss over these issues, which is disappointing and frustrating to the reader.  Whether Wash can actually exist without Titch, which circles back around the idea of real freedom and independence, is at the core of this novel, but isn’t really resolved (though I can’t remember a novel with a more unsatisfying ending). The reader is advised to read this novel for the joys of the plot rather than for didactic purposes.

I think that “Washington Black” ought to be considered a “young adult” adventure story, and a romping adventure the novel indeed is.  It’s written beautifully, has a similar fairy tale aspect to it that “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker also did, but it doesn’t dig too deeply about independence vs. freedom, or the father/son relationship implied but not really clarified.  And the characters’ asexuality seems odd at best, too, as if the author implies and hints at certain possibilities (paedophilia; homosexuality) but doesn’t want to go there; we readers are more sophisticated, or perhaps more jaded,  than that, so that the characters seem a bit stock, including the eccentricities of all the white, upper class English plantation owner family.   If you read “Washington Black” as an adventure story that dips in and out of issues raised by slavery, you can and will enjoy it more than you will if you’re looking more deeply for some questions and answers raised by the horrors of slavery and its aftermath.  Your own perspectives and novelistic needs, if you will, will help to determine how important you will find the novel to be.  At any event, it’s a great read, and a terrific plot, but your suspension of disbelief will need to be mighty high to find much in this novel to be credible, but perhaps that won’t matter to you as the book’s sheer charm and drama are beautifully rendered.

–Daniel Brown

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