With history, science and creativity, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (Knopf) tells the story of an 11-year-old slave in Barbados and his adventurous escape to freedom. Washington Black, or Wash, brought up in the sugar cane fields, experienced more than his share of oppression, suffering and abuse. When the slave master’s brother, Titch, visits the plantation and asks for the boy to be loaned to him, an unusual friendship and reliance develops between the two.
Growing up among brutal violence, Wash finds Titch to be a father figure. Titch is an abolitionist at heart and although he is focused on his scientific discovery of a flying machine, he provides an opportunity for Wash as he teaches him to read and nurture his artistic abilities. When Wash finds himself in a dangerous situation, Titch abandons his scientific experimentation to save him and they journey to the Arctic, where Wash gains his freedom — yet deep-seated scars of his past linger, contributing to his ongoing struggle with truly feeling free.
The two part ways and Wash clumsily navigates his first feelings of love and independence while he continues his quest for connection, respect and feelings of belonging, safety and equality.
Edugyan’s characters are deep and well-developed, and the story is heartbreaking, heartwarming, adventurous and rich with history. When we learn and think about slavery, we remember and try to understand the brutality inflicted on human beings, and the horrific mindset slave owners embodied. But the author brings to light more than just the struggles, abuse and loss of dignity. She reminds us of the incredible talents, contributions and genius that were sacrificed by taking away the rights of so many.
Finding love and pursuing scientific discovery begin to fulfill Wash’s dreams for a well-lived life, yet even when he is free and slavery is outlawed, he is haunted by his past. “I became a boy without identity, a walking shadow, and with each new month, I fell deeper into strangeness. For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere; a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”
This is a story of a slave, his passage to freedom, his neverending search for identity, love, family and success. It is an incredible adventure from the islands to the Arctic and beyond.
Can we overcome setbacks from our youth, or do we carry scars that impact our lives forever? Edugyan gives Wash physical scars from the past, reminding us that we are made up of life experiences that cannot be erased, and who we are is developed from our life journey.
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ABOUT ESI EDUGYAN:
Esi Edugyan is the author of the novels Washington Black, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Half-Blood Blues, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Orange Prize. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.