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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although, the story is a bit contrived, I quite enjoyed this adventurous novel and the characters discovered along their journey to England.
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.
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.”
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.
Washington Black was born as a slave on a sugar cane plantation in Barbados. He never knew his parents
We follow Wash as he makes his airborne escape from Barbados as Titch steals him away, and as they make their way to the cold of Canada and beyond. It is a fascinating, adventure filled journey but not without its dangers, and along the way we watch Wash develop from the illiterate slave boy Titch discovered into a compassionate young man, a talented artist and imaginative scientist. There are tensions from the uncertainty of Wash’s survival, but these are the certainly not the core of this novel, it is much more than that.
A beautifully written and detailed novel abounding with vivid descriptions of person and place, descriptions that are not only rich in visual impressions, but also the smells or aromas of almost everyone and every place is lavishly described.
I have only one reservation, I could not get away from the awareness of the author behind the creation of Wash, he never became a character in his own right, and the few strong female characters I could not help feeling were to some extent a mirror of the author herself. The best novels take on a life of their own, as if there were no author involved, creating a world into which one can fully escape, this one failed to do that for me. Is that because I was ever aware that this was a women writing as with the voice of a male protagonist - although I am sure I have read such without problem before - ?