Washington Black : A Novel

by Esi Edugyan

Hardcover, 2018

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Description

Washington Black is an eleven-year-old field slave who knows no other life than the Barbados sugar plantation where he was born. When his master's eccentric brother chooses him to be his manservant, Wash is terrified of the cruelties he is certain await him. But Christopher Wilde, or "Titch," is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor, and abolitionist. He initiates Wash into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky; where two people, separated by an impossible divide, might begin to see each other as human; and where a boy born in chains can embrace a life of dignity and meaning. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash's head, Titch abandons everything to save him. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic, where Wash, left on his own, must invent another new life.… (more)

Media reviews

The reader can almost see what is coming. Since Barbados was under British rule, slavery was abolished there in 1834. This, then, could be a novel about the last days of the cruelty, about what happens to a slave-owning family and to the slaves during the waning of the old dispensation. The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan has other ideas, however. She is determined that the fate of Washington Black will not be dictated by history, that the novel instead will give him permission to soar above his circumstances and live a life that has been shaped by his imagination, his intelligence and his rich sensibility....Edugyan is willing to take great risks to release the reader from any easy or predictable interpretations of Washington. She is not afraid to allow him to have thoughts and knowledge that seem oddly beyond his command. That is part of his ambiguous power in the book, the idea that, owing to his unusual quickness and subtlety of mind, Washington can be trusted to know more than he should
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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....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....The beauty here lies in Edugyan’s language, which is precise, vivid, always concerned with wordcraft and captivating for it...It’s not what readers who are wedded to realism might want, but Edugyan’s fiction always stays strong, beautiful and beguiling.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Gwendydd
George Washington Black is a slave in Barbados who is fortunate to be chosen by his master's brother, known as Titch, to be his assistant in his scientific experiment to build a hot-air balloon. He turns out to have amazing skill as an artist, and develops a close relationship with Titch. The two of them flee the plantation together, and Black has a series of adventures in the Arctic, Canada, England, and Europe.

It's interesting reading reviews of this book, because it almost feels like I read a different book. People describe it as an adventure novel, but there really isn't much adventuring - the adventures that do happen are over quickly, and Wash is mostly a passive observer being dragged along.

I think the biggest problem I had with the book was that Wash's character just never felt believable. He goes from uneducated slave to enthusiastic amateur scientist with little explanation of how that transition happened or what it really means to him. He apparently has a passion for studying sea creatures, but it's not clear when/how that passion started. He describes how much he hated learning to read, but then apparently becomes familiar with a wide array of books. As a former slave, it seems that he should have one of two reactions to science: (1) How can you focus all your time/energy/wealth on understanding sea animals when people around you are being brutally mistreated, or (2) Science has the power to transcend the pain of human existence. He never expresses either of these ideas, or seems to have much introspection about much of anything other than his relationship with Titch.

This book seemed to have missed a lot of opportunities to say something about what it means to be human, and the role that our capacity for love and intellectual endeavors play in what it means to be human.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
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 Kitt, 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 is the narrator 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 named Edgar Farrow gives them temporary shelter. In the meantime Erasmus hires a bounty hunter to retrieve Wash. Titch 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. 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.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Washington black, Esi Edugyan, author; Dion Graham, narrator
In the first third of the 19th century, slavery would soon be a thing of the past on the island of Barbados, but before it ended, George Washington Black’s life would be forever changed there. Born a slave, he was 11 years old when the book begins. Wash had never known freedom or a parent, although on the sugar plantation, Faith, he has a mother figure named Big Kit. She cares for him and tries to protect him but sometimes is cruel herself. When the owner of the plantation dies, his eldest nephew, Erasmus Wilde takes over the running of the place. He is cruel, violent and vicious. He enforces his power with malevolence, treating the slaves inhumanely, and without mercy. They are merely property for him to do with as he wishes, as they are to most slave owners. However, the descriptions of his brutality are contemptible. When Erasmus’s younger brother Titch (Christopher) arrives, Kit and Wash are waiting table for them at the manor house. Titch seems to have a softer and gentler nature. He is developing a flying machine that he calls a Cloud-cutter.. He wants Wash to assist him because of his small size which would be perfect as a ballast.
Titch prevails upon Erasmus to give him Wash and others to help him with his flying machine. When he realizes that Wash has the mind of a prodigy, he begins to teach him manners and how to read. He teaches him about marine specimens and about his Cloud-cutter. His artistic talent is discovered when Titch discovers Wash drawing in secret. He encourages him to continue to draw for him. There is magic in his drawings which possess a special kind of light and lightness. Soon the two are working together, although it takes time for Wash to overcome his fear of being abused by his masters. He lives with Titch in his quarters, and he sleeps in a bed for the first time in his life. Slowly, he becomes devoted to Titch and begins to trust him, although it seems never quite completely. When during an experiment with the Cloud-cutter, distracted by Titch’s cousin Philip, Wash is severely burned in an unexpected explosion, Titch nurses him back to health, but his face is brutally disfigured.
What seems like a short time later, Wash is with Philip once again, and he witnesses his death. He is helpless to prevent it, but as the last person to be with him, and as a black slave, he will be punished for the suicidal act.. Titch realizes that Wash is in grave danger, and so both take off in the Cloud-cutter to escape the plantation and prevent Wash’s capture and potential murder.
The adventures begin in earnest, at this time, as they are led in one direction or another, seemingly by chance encounters. Soon they are traveling the world from place to place, searching for Titch’s father, a well-known scientist whom Philip had told Titch had died. As possible sightings of his scholarly father persist, they travel to the Arctic to find him. The passage of time is ephemeral, and is hard to realistically determine based on the events taking place.
No matter what life throws at Wash, he seems almost supernatural and old beyond his years. He is as smart as a highly educated man, as well. He rises to the occasion no matter what he faces as lady luck seems to smile on him, helping him to survive to live another day. When after finding Titch’s father, Titch abandons him, wandering off into a snow storm and is never found, Wash begins to expore the world alone. He is but a teenager at the time without any known resources. He is an escaped slave, recognizable because of his facial scars and is in grave danger much of the time. Still, he makes his way to safety and, in Canada, where he soon meets a young woman, a couple of years older than him who is named Tanna, he finds a new life, once again. Tanna befriends him, and he discovers that her father is a famous zoologist, one he has actually studied, a man who knew Titch’s father and belonged to the same scholarly organizations and had the same honors bestowed upon him. Soon he is collecting and drawing specimens of marine life for him. When Titch conceives of the idea to open what might be the considered a modern day aquarium, they plan to do it together. However Ocean House, a place where marine life would be kept in tanks and viewed by the public, would never bear George Washington Black’s name.. This attraction to be built in London, in Regents Park, would only bring accolades to Mr. Goff, Tanna’s father. As a slave, and a black man, Wash would get no recognition even though it was his genius that conceived the idea and designed everything.
Although it is difficult to conceive of how much time has passed, exactly, the reader soon learns that like rumors about Titch’s father, there are now rumors about Titch himself. Is he still alive? Together with Tanna, he begins to search for him. He believes he may be in Morocco. At this time, Wash is about 18 and Tanna is 20. Their relationship has grown intimate.
Although it often feels as if great lengths of time have sometimes passed, the reader discovers that it is only a few months or years that have gone by. Sometimes the chapters seem to change so abruptly, the reader is left wondering what just happened or how much time has passed. The main character is Wash. He seems larger than life, capable of being at once naïve and then very sophisticated, at the same time. Although, when it begins, Wash is basically illiterate, he is treated with deference most of the time, as if he is a scholar, and is, in fact, described as a prodigy by Titch. His demeanor is, always well mannered and polite, but he often expresses disappointment which sometimes feels inappropriate.
There are times when what occurs requires the reader to suspend disbelief. There is occasional what feels like an infusion of magic and spirituality throughout the narrative which is lyrical and beautifully crafted even though the story often does lack cohesion and credibility when it extends into the world of fantasy. When the book ends, the reader might feel oddly disappointed, not knowing what will take place next, however, one is left with the idea that while Titch is still floundering, purposeless, George Washington Black has found his true purpose and intends to fight for it. After facing Titch and coming to terms with his misinterpretation of their relationship, he realizes that Titch could never be capable of the same depth of devotion that Wash has for him. He feels suddenly free to find his own future and he intends to fight for it. However, since he is black, without funds or family, the odds should be against him. This unreality is what faces the reader and Wash. The question is, what is Wash free to do?
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LibraryThing member SusanKrzywicki
Heartbreaking. I couldn't even get through the first third of the book.
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Washington Black is a young slave working in the sugar cane fields of a Barbados plantation when he catches the eye of the Master's brother, Titch. Titch is a scientist who has developed an aerostat, a flying machine that uses a hydrogen-filled balloon. Titch trains Wash in the natural sciences as well as teaching him the rudiments of reading and Wash finds he has a talent for drawing. But while Titch treats him humanely, Wash is still living on a plantation full of enslaved people and white men who regard the slaves as things. Circumstances cause Titch and Wash to flee in the aerostat, and the subsequent years bring both adventures and fear, as Wash travels to Virginia, the Arctic, Upper Canada, London, Continental Europe and Morocco.

Esi Edugyan has written this book as a traditionally structured historical novel, with plenty of adventure and lots going on. But there's a much larger and more subversive story going on as well. The reader feels Wash's real fear as a black man in a world that is hostile to him, where even when he is in places where slavery is illegal, he knows he can be forcibly taken. His moments of peace are always temporary. And Edugyan also looks at what slavery does to the traditional family structure and with a person's ability to function independently. Titch may be a caring person who can see Wash as a human being, but he's also still fed and supported by slavery and unable and unwilling to stand up against the existing structures. Each place Wash finds himself has its own racist structures in place, even in places known as places of refuge for escaped slaves.

From an abolitionist who studies decay in human corpses, to a woman with tobacco- stained teeth and a mind of her own, to a mute Dutch man more comfortable in the Arctic than at home, this is a novel full of colorful and unlikely characters, all of whom exist in some way outside of borders of respectable society.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5605. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan (read 5 Jan 2019) This novel is by a Canadian-born woman whose parents were born in Africa. It tells of a slave boy born on Barbados who is befriended by his master's brother, and who escapes in exciting fashion from Barbados and slavery.. After time in Virginia he fears he will be recaptured and returned to slavery so he manages to get to Canada. After fearsome time in the Far North and in Nova Scotia he gets to England, the Netherlands, and finally to Morocco. The novel starts well but meanders on pointlessly and ends most undramatically. in Morocco. It is well-written but seems pointless and outside of showing the evil of slavery had no message which spoke to me.… (more)
LibraryThing member stevesmits
George Washington Black is an enslaved boy on a plantation in the West Indies, a place of horrific cruelty. He is selected by Christopher Wilde (Titch, the brother of the master) who is a scientist experimenting with a lighter-than-air balloon. Wash is chosen because he's the right weight to provide the necessary ballast. Wash's face is badly burned by an explosion of hydrogen gas. (His disfigurement and his skin color will be impediments to full appreciation of his talents.) The balloon's maiden flight soon crashed, starting Titch and Wash on a journey (trailed by a slave hunter) to Virginia and the Arctic where Titch believes his scientist father is. Titch abandons Wash there which leads to a years-long journey by Wash. In Nova Scotia Wash becomes a naturalist of his own and assists Goff, an another naturalist, in developing an aquarium exhibit in London. Wash is the major contributor to the building of the exhibit, but he's bitter about not receiving his due credit, a result, he holds, is beause of his race. Wash hears that Titch may still be alive and he embarks on a trek to find him, largely motivated by his conflicts between his love for Titch and his resentment of being abandoned. Titch is an abolutionst which makes him virtuous, but Wash wonders if Titch's commitment is based more on the moral stain slavery places on white society, rather than on its cruelty to the enslaved black race.

This is a multi-themed story of race, love and abandonment, of the complexities of relationships. An author of lesser skill would have made this a feel good story of escape from the oppression and tyranny of slavery -- a journey from dark to light, a tale of moral triumph against evil. Instead, it tells of human relationships that are complex and contradictory, of love that is never certain and sure, of misunderstandings that confuse and engender bitterness. There is no easy resolution of such matters, certainly a truth of the human condition.
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LibraryThing member tronella
I liked the writing style, and the story never went where I expected, which kept me reading, but in the end this just wasn't to my taste. Despite being written in the first person, I never got a good sense of the main character's personality. I thought the opening section was the strongest, but then it seemed to lose track somehow, almost veering into magical realism at times. A few too many chapters ended in unnecessary "dramatic" cliffhangers, which got annoying pretty quickly.… (more)
LibraryThing member alanteder
World travelling adventure story keeps you reading

This was a well crafted adventure story that certainly kept me reading but overall it kept moving along so fast from place to place with resultant changes in character focus that the end result wasn't quite satisfying.

Trivia
With several historic and scientific tie-ins throughout I was curious to investigate some of the real-life inspirations behind this book. I couldn't find anything related to early 19th century hot-air ballooning in the Caribbean, but the historic inspiration for the Goff family seems to have been Philip Henry Gosse. Instead of a feisty daughter such as Tanna Goff though, the real-life Gosse was the father of Edmund Gosse, who wrote the memoir "Father and Son." Philip Henry Gosse was the founder of the first London public aquarium though in 1853 (17 years or so after the comparable event in Washington Black). Father Gosse was also the author of a non-Caribbean slavery expose in Letters from Alabama.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
This is an unusual coming of age story focused on six years in the life of a slave on a Barbados sugar plantation owned by the brutal Erasmus WIlde. Wash enjoys the protection of an older mother-figure, Big Kit, who is planning to escape--through death, which she claims will free then and send them back to their true home. Fortunately for Wash, he is taken under the wing of his master's younger brother, an abolitionist inventor of a hot air balloon he calls The Cloud-Cutter. Titch (as he asks Wash to call him) needs someone lighter than himself to launch his contraption, and he persuades Erasmus to let him borrow Wash. This relationship will have both positive and negative results for the young slave, forcing him to embark on a voyage that will be both arduous and wonderful. Along the way, he meets many unique characters, including a shady sea-captain, Titch's explorer father, a world-renowned naturalist and his daughter, a native Arctic guide, a bounty-hunter, and more.

While this may sound like a typical historical novel, it also contain elements of magical realism and--through Wash's internal questions about the nature or freedom, cruelty, friendship, and his own place in the world--philosophy. I was caught up in the first half of the book, but my interested flagged at points in the second half. This book has often been compared to The Underground Railroad, but I found the latter to be a more focused and powerful read.
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LibraryThing member cmt100
Very fine novels about slavery have been published for more than a century. All detail the brutality of the system and the suffering of the enslaved people. Recently, authors have added elements of fantasy or whimsy to that tradition--Colin Whitehead's Underground Railroad, with an actual underground railroad; and Esi Edugyan's Washington Black, with its flying machine. I loved this novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member chrisblocker
Washington Black is an imaginative novel that crosses boundaries, boundaries that exist in the story and boundaries that tend to hem in literature. It is a novel that is not easily classifiable, because it is very literary, but it also shows traits of fantasy and adventure. It is historical in setting, but does not allow this to confine its reach. A story of self discovery, Washington Black explores the topics of suffering and rebirth. It sounds like a fantastic novel, and the opening chapters prove this. What a perfect beginning! At 35 pages in, I knew I'd found the best novel of the year, an easy five-star rating. So what happened?

The fact is, Washington Black does little to sustain the wonder created in the opening chapters. The first several chapters are perfect. They're brutal, intelligent, and imaginative. I truly couldn't ask for more. The story opens with an amazingly drawn cast of characters, slaves and plantation owners on an estate in Barbados. We see the plight of the other slaves, as well as the conflicting natures of the plantation owner with his abolitionist-minded brother, through the eyes of young Washington Black—called Wash. The brutality of this particular plantation and the wonders set in motion by the brother, Titch, a scientist, create such a wonderful contrast. It's easy to imagine where this story might be going when Titch takes Wash under his wing, but it's a place that you, as the reader, want the story to go. It's magical, heartwarming, and full of imagery so palpable you can't deny its existence: a Vernes-esque journey around the world with a kindhearted scientist and his assistant, a child freed from slavery.

Unfortunately, this novel just can't maintain the forward movement it needs to claim its potential. The characters, while starting off great, did little to keep me invested in their stories. Sure, their adventure is wonderful, but their actions are wooden and their decisions based on inexplicable coincidences. They failed to carry me along on their adventure. The longer the story went on, the less I believed the magic the story was built on, the less I cared about the narrative.

In the end, I was left with too many questions, but not enough desire to find answers. What was really going on here? In a novel largely based on realism, it is easy to pick out the fantastical elements and analyze them. What was with the allusions to the spiritual personas of our characters: others that roam free of their selves? The existence of these “others” makes me wonder. Who was Washington Black? Was he a spirit of the self that existed in the opening chapters, a spirit making his way back to Dahomey? Was he reborn in the child Titch finds in Morocco? At the conclusion of Washington Black, I don't have any answers, only speculations. These questions display the intelligence of this novel and its author, but highlight the problem that it doesn't go far enough to provide answers or the will to learn the truth.

Washington Black is a powerful and imaginative story with so many great pieces. The writing is exceptionally powerful at times. It just doesn't keep it going, however, and the result is a firework that fizzles out long before the end. I recommend this novel to others, but with the caveat not to build your expectations too high in the beginning. Perhaps if I'd not done so, I would've walked away with warmer feelings regarding this story.

Thanks to the publisher, Knopf Publishing Group, for providing me early access to this title through NetGalley.
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LibraryThing member Romonko
I have made it my mission to read all the Giller Prize winners, and this book one for 2018. I was looking forward to reading it. I truly enjoyed Ms. Edugyan's Half Blood Blues which won in 2011. I was somewhat disappointed with this one though. The writing is excellent, and the character development is up to that in Half Blood Blues, but somehow the plot fell short for me. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because there is a lot of ground covered in between the covers. First a sugar plantation in the West Indies, then the Canadian arctic, then Nova Scotia, England, Amsterdam, and of all things Marrakesh. The ending was less than satisfactory as well. We are left hanging in Marrakesh when the book abruptly ends. By about 3/4 of the way through, I just wanted it to end, and the reason behind Washington Black's pilgrimage became unclear to me. The description of life on a sugar plantation worked by slaves was very well depicted and realistic, and little Washington Black a realistic character. As the book went on though, it seemed to lose focus, and it made no sense why Washington found himself where he was. His relationship with the slave holder's brother Titch became less and less explainable. I'm sorry. I have not read the other books in the Giller Prize shortlist as yet, but I don't understand why this one won.… (more)
LibraryThing member Carmenere
Thoughts: Washington Black is a young slave at Faith Plantation in Barbados. He is terrified of his master Erasmus Wilde who seems to enjoy inflicting torture upon his slaves. Fortunately, for Washington, Erasmus's younger brother Christopher arrives with his invention he calls a cloud cutter, aka, hot air balloon. Christopher observes Washington and chooses him to be his manservant and assistant to his experiments and a close bond forms between the two. A pretty ugly situation arises, whereby, the cloud cutter is put into service. It crashes. fortunately, into a ship bound for Virginia. Further fortuitous circumstances propel this story onward to its conclusion.
Although, the story is a bit contrived, I quite enjoyed this adventurous novel and the characters discovered along their journey to England.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“We must all take on faith the stories of our birth, for though we are in them, we are not yet present.”

The story begins, with a young slave, named Washington Black, living on a sugar plantation in Barbados. He is eleven years old and an orphan. There are many interesting left turns here and the first is, that the Master's younger brother, “Titch”, a naturalist and inventor, takes the boy under his wing, to help him with his eccentric experiments. This fortunate move, opens up many different worlds for Wash, until he is suspected of murdering a white man and is forced to flee the island, with the assistance of Titch. They end up in America, for awhile and then the Arctic, and then...
This novel goes in many unexpected directions, and I am not going to divulge much, but I will say this is a terrific book. It is well-written and intelligently researched. This is my first, by this author and I came away, quite dazzled.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This is one of the better books I've read this year - the narrator George Washington Black is a born a slave on a Caribbean sugar plantation, but through a fascinating setting of circumstances, he receives a scientific education (as well as being a talented artist). He also, through events that at times seem fantastical and others mundane, embarks on a series of travels that take him across the globe from Barbados to Virginia to Nova Scotia to London to Africa (and I may have missed a few in between). I really liked the adventure aspects of the novel and I appreciated a story that delves into the typical and the fantastic at the same - the author manages to make this combination work and I applaud the result.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
In 1830, George Washington Black is young boy, and a field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation.One evening he is asked to help with dinner in the slave owner’s house. There he captures the attention of Christopher “Titch” Wilde, brother of the slave owner. Titch sees something in Wash (as he is called), and convinces his brother to allow Wash to help him with a project. This turns out to be a pivotal moment in Wash’s life, ultimately leading him out of Barbados and slavery to begin a journey of finding himself.

This book reads like an adventure tale, with plenty of excitement and a writing style that kept me turning the pages. Some of Wash’s life experiences seemed a bit unrealistic for a young boy, requiring suspension of disbelief, but the adventures aren’t really the point. This tale is much more about identity and family, and the many ways they can be found.
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LibraryThing member strandbooks
Washington Black reminds me of a mix between a Jules Verne adventure and a Charles Dickens saga like Oliver Twist, but the protagonist is a slave from Barbados. The first chapters are about the brutal plantation but then young George Washington Black is swept away by the master’s brother in a hot air balloon. He then ends up in the Arctic, Newfoundland, London, Amsterdam and Morrocco. He has an amazing talent drawing and understanding engineering yet he is always struggling with the fact that it was a stroke of luck he was chosen to be taken from the plantation. The writing is really good and the plot moves quickly while still dealing with some pretty heavy themes.
Favorite quote: “what is the truth of any life, Titch? I doubt even the man who lives it can say. You cannot know the nature of another’s suffering.”
“No. But you can try your damnedest not to worsen it.”
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
George Washington Black lives a curiously scientific life, the fact that he begins that life as a slave born on a sugar cane plantation in Barbados notwithstanding. Life is hard, initially. Actually it is always hard for Wash. As a boy he is singled out for use as ballast on an experimental airship being constructed by Christopher Wilde (Titch), the younger brother of the plantation’s de facto owner, Eramus. Where Erasmus is vicious in his control and manipulation of his “property”, Titch is mild and, ineffectually, an abolitionist. When he discovers that Wash has hidden artistic talents (they were also hidden from Wash as he had never had any opportunity to discover them), Titch sets about to encourage Wash’s development both in art and letters so that he might better serve him as an assistant in his scientific endeavours. And so Wash’s life transforms. But events ensue, and soon enough Titch and Wash find themselves absconding in the night in the airship. Wash’s life after that is a series of encounters with scientifically inquisitive men, and women, but it is unease about his own origins that remains the greatest mystery in his life.

Esi Edugyan writes with a fluid style in the first person from Wash’s perspective. She captures his wonder at discovering his native abilities with understated charm. But the narrative never feels entirely at ease. Nor is the plot particularly plausible. And over the course of less than ten years Wash not only develops astonishing skills but his very manner of speaking elevates, almost more than is creditable given that the entire tale is told in reflection by him from his later life (though at which point is unclear). There are parts of the story that are set-pieces — e.g. the adventure in the Arctic, the airship in gale, etc. And there are certainly moments which are especially beautiful, such as the early days of Titch and Wash’s friendship. But the plotting and the obvious desire for external tension (which involves one close call after another) undercuts the expressive possibilities. Always an enjoyable read, but not always fully captivating.

Edugyan remains a writer full of promise and this novel adds to that without quite achieving it. Gently recommended.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
I placed a hold for this book in my library as soon as I heard it was published. Since then it has made it to the 2018 Giller longlist and the Booker 2018 shortlist and I expect it will be nominated for other prizes as well. It is an interesting and well-written story about the eponymous character coming of age and emerging from slavery into a respected scientist and illustrator.

Washington Black was born as a slave on a sugar cane plantation in Barbados. He never knew his parents
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
I am not sure what to say about this book. There will be a lot of criticism following, but I will start by saying it is worth reading.

There were elements of this I thought were extraordinary and elements I thought were precious (a word I don't use in a positive sense) and Forest Gump-y. The sentences were beautiful, and there were passages that were lovely and exciting, but the structure was a mess. There were hints of the fantastical, but this was not magical realism, so those bits seemed either unrealized or just silly. The biggest problem was that there was not a single idea that popped into Edugyan's head that she did not use. She threw everything at the wall, and then didn't mention half of those story points again until the final 15 pages. Evidently, she realized she had left many loose ends and tied them up neatly in a block of exposition. Speaking of that exposition, she also uses it to explain the motivations for characters' actions from hundreds of pages back; I had intended to complain that there was no attempt to explain the characters motivations (especially Philip) so the events seemed contrived. I guess the editor told her that so she threw in a couple paragraphs with some long buried events intended to explain it all. Now my complaint is that the explanations came 200 pages too late -- and also the explanations were ridiculous psychobabble. So yeah, I had issues. On the other hand, this was a fresh and fascinating escaped slave story, different than any I have seen. Equal parts Underground Railroad and Indiana Jones (the one where Sean Connery is his father, I can't recall the name.) That was cool. I loved the high concept and there were some really great storylines, just too many and too sloppily resolved. I will absolutely read her next book -- there is a truckload of talent here, and I suspect as she matures as a writer her books will get tighter. All that said, it won the Giller and was a Man-Booker finalist, so maybe its me.… (more)
LibraryThing member maryreinert
A gripping story of a young slave boy born on a Barbados sugar plantation. George Washington Black was "mothered" by a woman named Big Kit, but treated him poorly yet seemed to love him. By strange circumstance, he is taken under wing by Christopher Wilde, called Titch, the younger brother of the plantation owner. Titch is obsessed with science and a form of hot air balloon. When Wash, as he is called sees the suicide of a friend of the Wilde's, Titch decides he and Wash need to leave. From here the adventures begin taking them to American, on to the Arctic, then Nova Scotia, and finally to England.

The story is a bit of a stretch in places, yet totally believable which is due to the skill of the writer. Told from Wash's point of view, the reader begins to understand the hopeless situation that he was in as well as others in slavery, indeed the entire Black race.

It is in the Arctic that Titch seemingly leaves Wash stranded with Titch's dying father and a strange mute named Peter House. Wash cannot understand and is heartbroken at the loss of Titch and spends almost the rest of his life searching for him while he himself is running from a slave hunter and his own past.

This is a well written, interesting, and engaging novel. I had to reread the ending and still am not quite sure, but still a very enjoyable book.
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LibraryThing member nyiper
There is no way to give a simple description of this book! Her writing is so detailed and imaginative and I'm just plain astounded at her ability to provide such a picture for the mind, over and over. And Washington Black!!! What a character---fascinating. I really loved the book from beginning to end, every single page.
LibraryThing member kayanelson
2019 TOB--So many books I've read lately have something different about their writing. Like Rachel Cusk's trilogy where the story is told through conversations, or last year's TOB winner, Fever Dream, which was other worldly. But this book was written traditionally with a plot and characters. And what a great book. Vivid descriptions without being tiring. Character development done just right. And finally the most wonderful plot. It's absolutely wonderful.… (more)
LibraryThing member SignoraEdie
I was captivated by this book. Initially I thought it was going to about the "black experience." But while the main character is a slave in the Bahamas, it is more about a broader slavery...the things in life that imprison us in our search for true freedom. Beautifully written. And I fell in love with Wash!

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