Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
In Washington Black (longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize), Esi Edugyan imbues a Victorian-era storytelling sensibility into an American origin story. The saga of the slave George Washington Black, a “disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas,” is positively Dickensian in its prose and structure (the novel’s title may provide a clue, particularly if shelved alongside Oliver Twist or David Copperfield). It is a hopeful, life-affirming and often quirky bildungsroman, a joyous and rapturous adventure of a sort that feels all too absent in contemporary literature. Washington Black is transportive fiction at its finest; it is the kind of story that if it were serialized in the nineteenth century, rapt readers would wait at the docks for the next installment’s delivery.
Wash’s story opens on a plantation in Barbados. Erasmus, the plantation master, is prone to violence in his cruel attempts to keep his workers motivated. When his brother, a scientist who goes by the name Titch, selects Wash to be his research assistant, Wash finds his life redirected. He works with Titch on his Cloud-Cutter, a paddled hot-air balloon that might amount to a breakthrough in aeronautics. Wash’s mind is a fine match for Titch: he is an inquisitive, passionate learner and Titch (privately associated with abolitionist movements in America) finds a sort of kinship in their relationship. But after a balloon explosion leaves Washington permanently scarred and some familial complications arise between Titch and his relatives, the duo illicitly sets out for the north.
Their journey unfolds episodically, with scenes in the hulls of merchant ships and in the company of Titch’s various scientific associates. Chased by a slave catcher hired by Erasmus, they journey to Nova Scotia in pursuit of another lead revolving around more of Titch’s family intrigue. Wash, throughout their journey, continues assisting Titch in his studies and hones his skills as an illustrator. He develops a talent for natural renderings, and his sketches of flora and aquatic life open further opportunities later in his journey.
“The first rule of science,” Titch explains, “is to doubt appearances and seek substances in their stead.” It’s an interesting rule to apply to a book like this. Washington Black isn’t quite a story about a black slave becoming a free man; while this is certainly the backbone of the novel, Edugyan focuses much of her adventure on the concept of family and how a family can both give and take that sense of freedom. Early in the novel, Wash, essentially an orphan, finds comfort in another slave, the maternal Big Kit. When he flees Barbados, losing her presence, Titch adopts the role of a father figure. While Titch’s kindness towards Wash is unquestionable, the impetus for this kindness may be suspect: is his protection of Wash a way to free himself of the guilt he carries due his family’s history? Edugyan suggests that family is both a sort of freedom and a curse, and explores ways to navigate through or around it.
Washington Black is set apart from other novels that tackle the same story (Colson Whitehead’s 2017-longlisted and Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Underground Railroad feels far removed from Eudgyan’s wonderful prose). Edugyan crosses canons and places one familiar tale into the arena of another; Washington Black feels composed with a different range of literary values than those its subject typically draws. It’s not simply a quest to go north but one in search of something else; not quite a historical novel but something more hopeful. Edugyan shows that freedom is not an ending but a gateway; Wash doesn’t run from his enslavement, but runs, against all odds, towards life and all its wonderment.