Saturday is the day I have set aside to talk about books. This past Christmas, my sister got me a very cool gift – she bought Kindle versions of the five books listed as the best in fiction for 2018 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review. The books were Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, There There by Tommy Orange, and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. All of them were great, of course, by my favorite of the five was Washington Black.
George Washington Black is the name of the main character and the first-person narrator of the story. He is an African slave born on the island of British Barbados in the 1820s. The narrative begins when Wash, as he is known by, is about ten years old. He works in the fields under the protection of a fellow slave named Big Kit, who looks after him and helps him to understand the way the world works and avoid getting into trouble as much as possible. One evening, he and Big Kit are conscripted into helping with a formal dinner celebrating the arrival of the plantation owner’s brother, Christopher Wilde. Master Christopher sees something in young Wash and arranges with his brother to have the boy help him as a house boy and assistant in his quarters, which are separated from the main house. As their relationship continues, Master Christopher teaches Wash how to read and do math, taking measurements and making calculations in order to help with Wilde’s scientific experiments. It turns out that Wilde has come to Barbados specifically to experiment with lighter-than-air transportation, and he takes advantage of his brother’s absence to conscript more men to help him in the construction of a hot-air balloon vehicle.
Wash enjoys being part of this exciting project, and he is grateful to be out from under the cruel hand of the overseer. However, an accident occurs which disfigures his face, and the plantation’s owner returns in the company of his dangerous cousin. Master Christopher sees that Wash may not be safe much longer, and so he devises a plan to help Wash escape the island via the balloon.
This begins a fascinating adventure involving sailing ships, a brief and frightening layover in Virginia, arrival in Canada, a traipse across the frozen lands of the Arctic, a sweet but dangerous relationship with a young white girl, travel to England, research on oceanic life, and even a trip to Morocco. Through all of this, Wash is constantly aware of the peril he faces from those who would return him to slavery, even after the practice is abolished in the British islands from whence he came.
Early on, Master Christopher discovers Wash’s talent for drawing, and takes advantage of that ability to help him in cataloging his experiments. Once he has learned how to read, Wash becomes fascinated with scientific texts, especially those portraying creatures of the sea. One of the many things I loved about this book is the way it shows that reading, and a quick and curious mind, can transform a person’s life in ways that are both unpredictable and redemptive. His abilities to read and to draw surprise almost everyone he meets, but they also allow him to surpass not only the limitations placed on him by prejudice against his race but by his disfigurement as well.
Wash is an unforgettable character whose many lives, acquaintances, and accomplishments made this a story that I could not put down. If you’re interested in learning more about this book, here is a link to the original NYT book review.