"Washington Black" is an intense, climatic and atmospheric historical novel of the life and times of young George Washington Black, artist, scientist and slave. It is not without consideration that the words I've used above also describe weather, as weather and climate play a leading, indeed decisive, role in the events of this story.
Washington, "Wash,” born into slavery in the sugarcane fields on the island of Barbados, navigates a pre-industrial world of brutality, cruelty and savagery. The hardscrabble life of a slave in the cane fields in the early 19th-century Caribbean is, of course, atrocious, difficult and dangerous. Things become exponentially more calamitous for Wash when the master dies and the plantation is taken over by an heir, Erasmus Wilde. Wilde is the very epitome of the horror, barbarism and depravity engendered in the "peculiar institution" of slavery.
Wilde not only commands the very life and death of the people he "owns" but, when many decide that death is preferable to the life of misery and degradation that he allows them, he also threatens their return to the ancestral homelands in the afterlife. In a gruesome display of hatred and retribution, Wilde dismembers the putrefying body of the most recent suicide in front of the assembled slaves, telling them that, "They are stealing from him," and that "No one can return to the homeland without their head."
Things change dramatically for Wash when Erasmus' brother Christopher "Titch" Wilde comes to the plantation to launch the "Cloud-Cutter,” his experimental hot-air balloon. Titch takes Wash on as his assistant and discovers that Wash is not only bright and inquisitive but an artistic prodigy at natural illustration. When a death occurs to one of the Wildes' relations while visiting the island and Wash is implicated, Titch and Wash decide they must flee in the Cloud-Cutter. This is the beginning of the journey that will take Wash from the blowing snow and ice-fields of the Arctic to the blowing sands and desert of Morocco. In the course of his travels Wash will find many travails and challenges and, eventually, freedom, such as it is.
Esi Edugyan is a creative and talented writer, and has won many prestigious writing awards at a relatively young age, literally too many to name in this short review. I will say that "Washington Black" has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and I could easily see it winning. Edugyan speaks with a unique and powerful voice, a voice that reflects both her African heritage (her parents emigrated from Ghana to Calgary, Canada, in the 1970s) and her classical and creative training at Victoria University and Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars graduate program.
Edugyan spoke of the emotional difficulty she experienced while she was researching the doctrine and practice of the execrable institution of slavery in the New World. Her deep connection to the subject is amply and beautifully demonstrated in the intensity and ferocity of her writing. I will miss George Washington Black and his singular, tenacious voice.