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'Washington Black' Is A Soaring Tale Of Enslavement And Escape

Esi Edugyan's new novel, Washington Black, opens on wretched terrain: The year is 1830; the location is a sugar plantation in Barbados. Our narrator, an enslaved 11-year-old boy named George Washington Black — "Wash" for short — tells us that the old master has recently died.

Wash is now standing to attention as a carriage carrying his new master arrives; he's a pale sinister-looking man named Erasmus Wilde. Looking at him, Wash comments, "He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much."

Readers will naturally anticipate that a tale of brutalities, small moments of grace and thwarted escape attempts will follow. Except, that's not quite what happens.

In short order, two escape attempts here are successful: Wash breaks away from that plantation — via hot air balloon no less! — and Edugyan also breaks away, in her case leaving behind the confines of the conventional historical novel and transporting readers into the giddy realms of Romantic-era travelogue and scientific exploration.

In Washington Black, Edugyan has created a wonder of an adventure story, powered by the helium of fantasy, but also by the tender sensibility of its aspiring young hero, Wash Black.

Let's backtrack a second to that opening scene at the plantation. The new master is not the only white man who steps down from that carriage. His younger brother, Christopher Wilde (nicknamed "Titch"), also alights; he turns out to be a rather decent man of science who's brought along the materials to assemble what he calls, a "Cloud-cutter" — a hot air balloon attached to a boat-like gondola.

Titch enlists Wash as his assistant, teaching him to read and, in the process, discovering that Wash possesses a skill for executing detailed scientific drawings. Across the color line, the two strike up a kind of friendship. So much so, that when it seems likely that Wash will be killed in wrongful retaliation for the death of a white visitor to the plantation, Titch fires up the gas canister, cuts the ropes that tether the Cloud-cutter to Earth and, together, the two ascend into a tempestuous nighttime sky.

"I began to cry. ..." recalls Wash, thinking of this extraordinary moment. "The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm-fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous."

If only that escape were the soaring conclusion to Wash's adventures, not just the beginning. But, inevitably, the friends' attempt to float above the consequences of racism springs a leak and their balloon comes crashing down to hard historical realities. A multitude of plot twists ensue, taking, first, Wash and Titch, and, then, Wash alone, to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London and even to the bottom of the sea.

Certainly, much of the pleasure of reading Washington Black derives from Edugyan's ingenious storytelling gifts, but her novel is more than just a buoyant bauble. Wash is weighted down throughout his travels by the burdensome question of identity; for one thing, he can never predict how other characters, whether they be black or white, will see him. The prized scientific education he received from Titch elevates Wash, but also makes him a curiosity, much like the solitary little orange octopus he captures on his underwater dive to later exhibit.

Wash resolutely places his faith in science to advance human enlightenment, but midway through the novel, he experiences a harsh awakening:

Washington Black is an unconventional and often touching novel about the search for transcendence above categories. As she tries to do for her hero, Wash, Edugyan clearly aims to carry her readers up, up and away.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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