Each child’s journey to adulthood has its own unique elements. Washington Black’s difficult, surprising, sometimes magical journey is the subject of this formidable novel by Esi Edugyan, Canadian author of the highly acclaimed Half Blood Blues.
A slave in Barbados, young Washington Black witnesses unspeakable horrors on the Faith Plantation run by Englishman Erasmus Wilde, a “sinister man in white – tall, impatient, sickly, his legs bending away from each other like calipers.” Knowing nothing of the world outside of the plantation, nor any family apart from a woman who looks out for him when she can, Washington learns from experiences and impressions, gut feelings and physical pain.
One of the first things he learns is that whiteness is a variable condition. Where Erasmus is cold and cruel, his brother, known as Titch, is neither, and when he is plucked from the fields to attend Erasmus and Titch in the Great House, Washington’s journey begins in earnest. Although part and parcel of the white world that created and enforced slavery, Titch is a quiet abolitionist of limited influence outside of his immediate impact on Washington, whom he calls Wash as an early term of endearment.
Wash has a natural gift for drawing, and his talents are immediately put to use in Titch’s work on a contraption he is building called the Cloud Cutter. To perhaps everyone’s surprise, the Cloud Cutter indeed flies, and a good thing too – Wash’s life is increasingly in peril and would be lost if it weren’t for Titch’s flying machine.
From the moment of take-off, Washington Black, like the wild ride Wash and Titch undergo after escaping Barbados, is unputdownable. As a discerning, artistic, black companion to a white man during slavery, Wash is a welcome counterpoint to the sarcastic and clever Huck Finn and a total revision of Huck’s companion, Jim. About the nuanced nature of race and identity, Wash perhaps says it best when he contemplates snow upon seeing it for the first time: “I had been warned that snow was white, and cold. But it was not white: it held all the colours of the spectrum.” This is one of the best novels of the year.