“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan begins, as many things do, with death. It is not a sad or moving death, but rather one that Washington observes indifferently. It is the death of someone who he has never met but whose passing will irrevocably change the course of his life forever. It is the death of his first master.
Washington Black, whose name serves as the title of Edugyan’s novel, began working on Faith Plantation in Barbados in the early 1800s. Washington, or Wash, was born into slavery on the plantation and spends his days working the sugar cane fields under brutal conditions. He’s mentored and cared for by a fiery woman named Big Kit, who helps him survive life as a Black boy in a white man’s world.
Upon the death of his master, however, everything changes. A new master is appointed and moves into the plantation, along with his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde. Titch is a compelling and intriguing man, a person caught between two different worlds and a little out of place no matter where he goes. Edugyan paints him as an eccentric scientist more concerned with gazing at the moon through a telescope than helping his brother run the plantation.
Titch has come to the plantation to work on the construction of what he calls a “cloud-cutter,” or an early version of the modern day hot air balloon. After Wash serves him dinner one night, Titch enlists the young boy as his assistant. He soon discovers Wash’s remarkable intelligence and the extraordinary talent he has for drawing and sketching, prompting him to employ Washington as a sketcher for his cloud-cutter project. Wash moves into the plantation house and the two begin to bond over their shared fascination of science and the natural world.
The connection between Wash and Titch is one of the most captivating aspects of the novel. It is a poignant and realistic portrayal of the depth and complexity of human relationships. In many ways, the novel focuses on their relationship the way a romantic comedy focuses on the bond between the leading man and woman, yet their relationship is not romantic. It’s simply the sort of friendship that’s easy to become invested and absorbed in.
That friendship is tested, however, when unforeseen circumstances endanger Wash’s life and lead Titch to escape the plantation and take Wash with him. Their daring escape marks the beginning of a perilous journey to the Arctic that simultaneously brings Wash to places and people he never imagined he would encounter. It is a thrilling, unpredictable journey that makes for an entertaining and enthralling read.
Edugyan has crafted a beautifully written and heart-wrenching novel that, despite being set in the 1800s, is incredibly relevant. Her writing raises the question of what it means to be free and what a person should do with that freedom. But most importantly, it forces readers to question whether or not two people who are so entirely different from one another can ever really understand and even care for one another.