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Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan.

December 18, 2018

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan.  Knopf, 2018.

5 stars  FAVORITE

Wonderful storytelling by an African Canadian woman about a slave boy from Barbados saved by his master’s brother and transported into the life of a fugitive and seeker in the Canadian Artic, London, and Africa.

Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 in Alberta, Canada, of Ghanian parents.  She attended   the University of Victoria and earned her Masters degree from John Hopkins.   She has taught creative writing at John Hopkins University and the University of Victoria and lives in Victoria, British Columbia.  Her previous novels are The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Half-Blood Blues have received several notable awards.  Washington Black is currently appearing on virtually everyone’s best book list for 2018.

In Edugyan’s novel, Wash was simply another slave orphan who survived by clinging to a fierce woman slave. By chance, he is chosen by his English master’s brother, nicknamed Titch, to be his assistant.  Intent on building a hot-air balloon, Titch chooses Wash because he is the right size to be the balloon’s blast. Titch quickly discovers that Wash is a talented artist and a budding scientist..  A bond between them grows and Titch saves Wash from slavery and from death by escaping the plantation in the balloon.  The two of them drift, their movements shaped by the fact that Wash is a fugitive slave.  Eventually they go to northern Canada looking for Titch’s father, a well-known explorer.  When Titch leaves Wash in his father’s camp, the boy is torn by the rupture from the man who has been his savior.  Wash goes looking for him and arrives in a Nova Scotian town where he becomes involved with a young woman and her scientist father. He goes to England, continuing to search for Titch in Europe and Africa.

At one level, Washington Black is full of detailed descriptions of physical realities as different as the murderous suffering of a slave to the examples of fantastic sea life that Wash captures in his drawings.  At another level the book is a coming of age story of a black child who escapes slavery but finds no place for himself in the “free” world.  And perhaps the book is about slavery and its lingering impact on black/white relations.  Perhaps it is about dependency and loss.  Any book that resonates at so many levels and remains a delightful read is worthwhile, especially one that offers such unusual perspectives on still persisting attitudes.

This book is no fantasy, yet its plot is as likely to have happened as one of Charles Dickens’ classics.  Like Dickens, Edugyan combine a sharp depiction of harsh physical reality with a magical sense of the narrative.  Occasionally the journey seems unnecessarily long, but the ending is spectacular.

I enthusiasitically recommend this book.  Be prepared to be amazed.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Pat Robbennolt permalink
    December 20, 2018 5:11 pm

    Sounds like one that many of us would like to read. Pat

  2. December 20, 2018 9:13 pm

    thanks. I was thinking about suggesting it to the group. Also Salt Creek. I love your commenting. Please keep it up. Maybe after the first of the year you can come by and talk about which of the books that I have reviewed others may like. I don’t want to recommend too many and thus want the best ones for others–not just what I like best which doesn’t work well.

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