'Washington Black' Is A Soaring Tale Of Enslavement And Escape

Oct 15, 2018
Originally published on October 16, 2018 1:10 pm

Esi Edugyan's new novel, Washington Black, opens on wretched terrain: The year is 1830; the location is a sugar plantation in Barbados. Our narrator, an enslaved 11-year-old boy named George Washington Black — "Wash" for short — tells us that the old master has recently died.

Wash is now standing to attention as a carriage carrying his new master arrives; he's a pale sinister-looking man named Erasmus Wilde. Looking at him, Wash comments, "He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much."

Readers will naturally anticipate that a tale of brutalities, small moments of grace and thwarted escape attempts will follow. Except, that's not quite what happens.

In short order, two escape attempts here are successful: Wash breaks away from that plantation — via hot air balloon no less! — and Edugyan also breaks away, in her case leaving behind the confines of the conventional historical novel and transporting readers into the giddy realms of Romantic-era travelogue and scientific exploration.

In Washington Black, Edugyan has created a wonder of an adventure story, powered by the helium of fantasy, but also by the tender sensibility of its aspiring young hero, Wash Black.

Let's backtrack a second to that opening scene at the plantation. The new master is not the only white man who steps down from that carriage. His younger brother, Christopher Wilde (nicknamed "Titch"), also alights; he turns out to be a rather decent man of science who's brought along the materials to assemble what he calls, a "Cloud-cutter" — a hot air balloon attached to a boat-like gondola.

Titch enlists Wash as his assistant, teaching him to read and, in the process, discovering that Wash possesses a skill for executing detailed scientific drawings. Across the color line, the two strike up a kind of friendship. So much so, that when it seems likely that Wash will be killed in wrongful retaliation for the death of a white visitor to the plantation, Titch fires up the gas canister, cuts the ropes that tether the Cloud-cutter to Earth and, together, the two ascend into a tempestuous nighttime sky.

"I began to cry. ..." recalls Wash, thinking of this extraordinary moment. "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."

If only that escape were the soaring conclusion to Wash's adventures, not just the beginning. But, inevitably, the friends' attempt to float above the consequences of racism springs a leak and their balloon comes crashing down to hard historical realities. A multitude of plot twists ensue, taking, first, Wash and Titch, and, then, Wash alone, to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London and even to the bottom of the sea.

Certainly, much of the pleasure of reading Washington Black derives from Edugyan's ingenious storytelling gifts, but her novel is more than just a buoyant bauble. Wash is weighted down throughout his travels by the burdensome question of identity; for one thing, he can never predict how other characters, whether they be black or white, will see him. The prized scientific education he received from Titch elevates Wash, but also makes him a curiosity, much like the solitary little orange octopus he captures on his underwater dive to later exhibit.

Wash resolutely places his faith in science to advance human enlightenment, but midway through the novel, he experiences a harsh awakening:

I had long seen science as the great equalizer [Wash says]. No matter one's race, or sex, or faith — there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I'd given to the ways in which it might be corrupted [by human beings].

Washington Black is an unconventional and often touching novel about the search for transcendence above categories. As she tries to do for her hero, Wash, Edugyan clearly aims to carry her readers up, up and away.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Esi Edugyan is a Canadian writer whose third novel, "Washington Black," has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, an award given annually in Britain to a novel written in English and published in the U.K. The winner will be announced tomorrow. We'll hear an interview with Edugyan. But first, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review. She says "Washington Black" is a vivid travelogue through some strange territory.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Esi Edugyan's new novel, "Washington Black," opens on wretched terrain that will be familiar to anyone who's read slave narratives. The year is 1830. The location is a sugar plantation in Barbados. Our narrator, an enslaved 11-year-old boy named George Washington Black, Wash for short, tells us that the old master has recently died. Wash is now standing to attention as a carriage carrying his new master arrives. He's a pale-looking looking man named Erasmus Wilde. Looking at him, Wash comments, he owned me, as he owned all those I lived among - not only our lives but also our deaths. And that pleased him too much.

Readers will naturally anticipate that a tale of brutalities, small moments of grace and thwarted escape attempts will follow, except that's not quite what happens. In short order, two escape attempts here are successful. Wash breaks away from that plantation via a hot air balloon, no less. And Esi Edugyan also breaks away - in her case, leaving behind the confines of the conventional historical novel and transporting readers into the giddy realms of Romantic-era travelogue and scientific exploration. In "Washington Black," Edugyan has created a wonder of an adventure story, powered by the helium of fantasy but also by the tender sensibility of its aspiring young hero, Wash Black. Let's backtrack a second to that opening scene at the plantation.

The new master is not the only white man who steps down from that carriage. His younger brother, Christopher Wilde, nicknamed Titch, also alights. He turns out to be a rather decent man of science who's brought along the materials to assemble what he calls a cloud cutter, a hot air balloon attached to a boat-like gondola. Titch enlists Wash as his assistant, teaching him to read and, in the process, discovering that Wash possesses a skill for executing detailed scientific drawings.

Across the color line, the two strike up a kind of friendship, so much so that when it seems likely that Wash will be killed in wrongful retaliation for the death of a white visitor to the plantation, Titch fires up the gas canister, cuts the ropes that tether the cloud cutter to earth. And together, the two ascend into a tempestuous nighttime sky. I began to cry, recalls Wash, thinking of this extraordinary moment. 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. If only that escape were the soaring conclusion to Wash's adventures, not just the beginning. But inevitably, the friends' attempt to float above the consequences of race springs a leak, and their balloon comes crashing down to hard, historical realities. A multitude of plot twists ensue, taking first Wash and Titch and then Wash alone to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London and even to the bottom of the sea.

Certainly, much of the pleasure of reading Washington Black derives from a Edugyan's ingenious storytelling gifts. But her novel is more than just a buoyant bauble. Wash is weighted down throughout his travels by the burdensome question of identity. For one thing, he can never predict how other characters, whether they be black or white, will see him. The prized scientific education he received from Titch elevates Wash but also makes him a curiosity, much like the solitary, little, orange octopus he captures on his underwater dive to later exhibit. Wash resolutely places his faith in science to advance human enlightenment. But midway through the novel, he experiences a harsh awakening. I had long seen science as the great equalizer, Wash says. No matter one's race or sex or faith, there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I'd given to the ways in which it might be corrupted by human beings.

"Washington Black" is an unconventional and often touching novel about the search for transcendence above categories. As she tries to do for her hero Wash, Esi Edugyan clearly aims to carry her readers up, up and away.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Washington Black" by Esi Edugyan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.