As time has gone on I’ve found myself increasingly becoming a huge sucker for historical fiction. I think a big part of it comes from the fact that I’ve gotten far enough away from my time at college that I’ve become oddly nostalgic for learning, and history is one of those topics that really pops out to me as a perfect thing to hop back into. But, while non-fiction history books can be a tad dry, and damn near impossible to talk about on this site, I’ve instead drifted more towards historical fiction, getting fun stories that transport you to a different time and place, but in a way that brings the era to life. And, in my never-ending quest to find great new books, I came across one that got quite a bit of love last year, the new novel from Esi Edugyan, Washington Black. The book really seemed up my alley, promising a strange coming of age tale about exploration and passion, something that I certainly would be interested in. But, the movie was also a tale about a young slave in Barbados getting swept out of his repugnant life and into a world of adventure, which seemed to have the potential of becoming a pretty tight rope to walk. But, those slight worries proved to be completely warrantless, because Washington Black is an incredible little story that was beautifully done.
Washington Black is a young boy, living a life of slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados, just trying to exist. Which, obviously, is not the easiest thing in the world, especially for an eleven year old. But, Wash’s life is forever changed when the brother of his cruel master Erasmus Wilde, a man called Titch, arrives on the island. Titch is surprisingly a very kind man to the slaves, and he takes an almost immediate interest in Washington. He’s come to the island in order to built a crude derigible, his life-long passion, and asks his brother to essentially lend him Washington as his assistant on the island. Erasmus agrees, and Washington begins living with Titch, where he’s taught to read, write, and draw, and he slowly starts to learn about science and nature, becoming a true assistant to Titch, helping him in the building of his dirigible. The two become close friends, but things get a little rocky when Titch and Erasmus’ cousin Philip comes to the island, and throws things into disarray. Philip is mostly responsible for an accident with some hydrogen that permanently scars Wash’s face, and eventually breaks the news to Titch and Erasmus that their father has died, and things are going to be changing. It’s expected that Titch take over the plantation while Erasmus head back to England to become the patriarch of the family, and Titch hates that idea. So, he and Washington take to the skies with their dirigible, and promptly fall into the ocean. But, they’re saved by some sailors, and begin a quest to travel to the Arctic, where Titch’s father had been living and researching. It takes quite a while, but the pair eventually reach the frozen North where they’re shocked to find Titch’s father still alive. They spend some time with the man, but Titch eventually grows anxious, and ends up leaving without Washington, leaving the young boy behind.
Washington lives for a while with Titch’s father, but when the man actually does die he decides to strike out on his own. He tries to never stay in one place for too long, because he’s being hunted by a bounty hunter for being a runaway slave, but he eventually makes a home for himself in Nova Scotia, working menial jobs and giving himself plenty of time to read and draw, continuing the skills he grew with Titch. And, in the process he ends up meeting a woman named Tanna who also has a love for drawing, particularly aquatic animals. The two build a friendship, and eventually a burgeoning romance, when Wash learns that her father is a respected marine biologist. He begins spending quite a bit of time with both Tanna and her father, before revealing an idea he’s been working on. Washington has developed an idea for an aquarium, potentially giving people a sight of a world they’ve never seen, and with Tanna and her father’s help, the trio head to England to open their first aquarium. But, around this time Washington becomes obsessed with Titch, especially when he encounters the bounty hunter who had been searching for him for so long, who tells Wash that Titch is still alive. And, with Tanna’s help, Wash begins traveling Europe, looking for Titch, before finally being led to the desert outside Morocco. He finally encounters his old friend and mentor, and the two have a tense reunion, finally allowing Washington to make peace with his past and move on with his future.
I really enjoyed this novel. When I first started it I was a little worried that it would end up feeling a little too much like a fable, telling the story of a little slave boy who gets to escape his life and go on a magical adventure, something that would have felt a little false. But, that didn’t end up being the story we got. Instead, we got a really beautiful character study, a story that seemed to recognize the more outlandish aspects of itself, but embrace them in a way that just further fleshed out the life of Washington Black. This is the first novel I’ve ever read from Esi Edugyan, and I’m really going to have to seek out more of her writing, because she had a wonderful, almost lyrical sense of prose, building Washington in a way that felt subtle, realistic, and powerful, while letting us see the world through his eyes in all the ugliness and beauty entailed. Certain parts of the story were of course a little out of the ordinary, but it was all done to tell an immensely human and universal story.
Because we’re all out there searching for our purpose, while being wracked with self-doubt. Wash at times feels incredibly guilty that he managed to get off the plantation and lead a life of globe-trotting fulfillment, but also recognizes the immense privilege he’s been given to chase his passions. He finds a purpose to his life in the form of the aquarium, and even fights to get his name involved, not being relegated to another nameless person whose work went on to prop up a mediocre white guy. But, in the face of that success, he becomes terrified that there’s still something missing. That this huge development in his life wasn’t the defining moment in his life, and that that was actually Titch’s abandonment. Washington realizes he can’t move on and live the life he wants to live without dealing with the biggest question of his life. And that obsession, that fear that something that happened in our past will keep us from being happy, is an incredibly familiar and human feeling. We’re all wracked with stress and fear that something in our past is the key to our present unhappiness, and to see Wash put his entire life on hold to track one person down and simply ask them “why,” feels incredibly cathartic. I feel like we all wish we could do what Wash did, even if the answer isn’t what we want. It’s just the knowledge, the confirmation one way or the other that the thing we’ve spent our lives questioning actually mattered at all, and deserved all of that mental anguish.
Washington Black was written by Esi Edugyan and published by Harper Collins, 2018.
Categories: Page Turners