by Erin Rubin
Esi Edugyan’s novel Washington Black is held together by an irony as poignant as it is painful: Though the story relies heavily on a sense of place, its title character belongs nowhere. George Washington Black travels four continents in search of belonging, identity, and security, but the wounds of slavery and colonialism are too fresh upon the world for anywhere to be home.
Wash describes his own journey as an "erratic pursuit of an unanswerable truth...so lacking a foothold anywhere that nowhere felt like home."
“Wash,” as he is known, begins his life in Barbados in the 1820s, as a slave on Faith Plantation. The particular brutality of the British West Indies is on full display, and the reader is made to almost feel the oppressive heat and smell the acrid fear mixed with the sweetness of sugarcane. Here we meet Wash’s “master,” Erasmus Wild; his gentler younger brother, Christopher “Titch” Wild; their cousin, Philip Wild; and the only person to really care for young Wash, a fellow slave from Dahomey named Big Kit. Though Wash flees Barbados as a child, these four adults remain the primary relationships in his life.
Edugyan’s use of place to convey not just themes of the novel, but stages of her protagonist’s life, gives the reader a feeling of movement and rootlessness against which Washington struggles to develop. In the harshness of the Arctic, Wash is stripped of his old life in Barbados and sent to make his way in Canada, where like so many other plantation refugees, he is free but not welcome. Edugyan never uses the word ‘frontier,’ but the rough Nova Scotian town, its gruff inhabitants, and the economy’s dependence on plundering natural resources evoke the setting clearly enough.
As Titch recognized almost immediately, Wash is unusually intelligent. Not only is he a gifted artist, he grasps scientific concepts and formulas easily once Titch begins to teach him. This conception of himself as an artist and a scientist is where Wash finds belonging, since no place can feel like home. Yet even these, his own natural abilities and the life they allow him, are bound up in the terrible legacy of colonialism, of his having once been owned. Wash’s reckoning with this fact, and with how it marks his most significant relationships, is his greatest struggle.
Wash’s character foil is not his evil master or his unluckier fellow slaves, but the person with whom he seems to have most in common: his liberator and teacher, Titch Wild. Though they share a love for science and a habit of fierce devotion to their role models, Titch’s understanding of power, liberation, and loyalty is crippled by the boundaries his world imposes, boundaries he doesn’t recognize enough to struggle against. Wash’s life, on the other hand, depends upon a sophisticated understanding of those same dynamics.
Titch's greatest moment of kindness comes not when he takes Wash with him away from Faith, but on their first day together, when he invites Wash to look at the moon through a telescope. Terrified and habituated to Erasmus’ random cruelty, Washington pretends to be awed even though the scope is so unfocused he sees nothing. When he realizes this, Titch is not upset, and he doesn’t laugh; instead he simply adjusts the tool so Washington can share in the delight of a beautiful moon. That moment of basic human decency is the start of Wash’s new life, one he will struggle to claim independently of Titch for many years.
Titch's character is tied up with England, a place he tries to avoid but which nevertheless exerts great influence. The Wilds' property is the source of both Titch's wealth and Washington's misery, for it is this grand style of living that colonialism and slavery support. That Titch's ability to travel and practice science relies on the subjugation of Washington's fellow African slaves is too much for a young boy to grapple with, but Edugyan later uses the setting to emphasize the extractive power dynamics that Washington can't seem to escape. Her description of the Wilds' estate emphasizes how the damage wreaked by colonialism is a poison to all levels of the system, even those that ostensibly benefit.
Edugyan paints a sensitive, heartbreaking, delicately rendered story. Her language is unadorned but precise, with original and brilliantly apt turns of phrase. The novel is packed with insight, and bears reading over and over again.
Erin Rubin is a writer and editor based in Irvine, CA. She is the managing editor of LibroMobile Voices.