Washington Black by Esi Edugyan follows the title character from the plantations of Barbados to the Arctic circle and finally to the Moroccan desert. At the start of the novel, the 11-year-old Washington Black witnesses untold horrors at the hands of his tyrannical slave-owner Erasmus Wilde. His only real friend is Big Kit, an elderly enslaved woman who protects Washington from abuse and offers the boy guidance.
One day, Erasmus’s brother Christopher (“Titch”) Wilder asks Washington to help him build a cloud-cutter. Titch chooses Washington because the boy is a talented artist, with an eye for detail. Yet, the building of this airship is no smooth sailing. Washington suffers severe facial burns in a work accident, prompting Erasmus to take the boy back from his brother. Titch almost destroyed his “property”. But before Washington can be returned to his slave-owner, Erasmus’s cousin Philip takes his own life. Because Washington witnessed the event, he knows that he will be blamed for the man’s death. That night, Titch – realizing that the boy is in danger – helps Washington escape Barbados. The two take to the sky in their newly built cloud-cutter.
Yet, Washington’s escape is not his ticket to freedom. He lives in the shadow of several inventors, who, though critical of slavery, nevertheless use Washington for their personal gain.
If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I absolutely love travel stories. Washington Black is not only entertaining but also highly original in its perspective. Travel adventures are traditionally told from the perspective of the lead-explorer (almost always a white man). The servant (or slave, as the case might be) is taken for granted. They might be the butt of some jokes, but they are otherwise face-less characters. Esi Edugyan turns the narrative on its head by centering the anonymous slaves who made technological advancement possible. Washington’s story is punctuated by extreme suffering and neglect. The plantation scenes are some of the most brutal I have encountered in fiction. Yet, Washington is not entirely a victim of his circumstances. Edugyan gives her protagonist agency and a voice. He is neither a victim to pity nor a hero to admire.
This work is a fantastic contribution to the travel fiction genre. It deserves all of the literary prizes it has received and been nominated for. I will definitely be reading Edugyan’s earlier two novels.
“But human faces are so interesting,” said I. “Yes, to be sure. But when you are looking at one face, you are not looking at another. You are privileging that face. You are deciding who is worthy of observation and who is not. You are choosing who is worth preserving.”