Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Congratulations to Esi Edugyan on winning the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize. When a book gets as much pre-publication press as Washington Black by Esi Edugyan the cynic in me wonders if it is truly as wonderful as advertised – or not. Patrick Crean, publisher of this new novel, was also the publisher of Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s earlier Giller Prize winning novel. He personally recommended it to me – and he was right that it is a very, very good book. This novel and this award has cemented her reputation as an author of consequence in this country and around the world. Man Booker Prize nominations for both novels also contributed.
Washington Black is the name of a young slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados. He is chosen by Christopher “Titch” Wilde to become his assistant in his efforts to build a hot air balloon and launch it from nearby Corvus Peak.
Titch is a kind man, but we discover he is also a troubled man as his past is slowly revealed as the story progresses. Titch takes on Washington as both a much needed assistant, and as an act of kindness to the child. When it is discovered that the boy is a talented artist he becomes even more useful to Titch. Their relationship is a complicated one, the need of one for the other, and the need for each to find a place of safety – first on the plantation and later in the wider world.
The only person who had ever been kind to Washington in his young life had been Big Kit, a slave who both protected him and abused him, preparing him for both death and freedom. Big Kit is always with him, even when he knows not if she is alive or dead. A sixteen-year-old Washington thinks to himself, “I recalled what Big Kit had once said about freedom – that if he did not feel like working, the free man tossed down his shovel. If he did not like a question, he made no answer. And I was trying my best to live up to this ideal, to be my own free man. But, it was quite an awakening, to leave behind Titch’s coddled world and to meet again with the brutality of white men.”
This is a novel about identity and belonging – for Titch and, especially, for Washington. Titch steps outside the expected boundaries of his own family, his only desire to escape the past, his childhood experiences, and the present day expectations he feels as the son of a plantation owner. Titch is a creative man, but flawed, and disturbed. Washington until the age of eleven knew only the brutality of life on a sugar plantation, and the very real fear of pain or death each day. It is his good fortune to be taken from that life, to be removed from the plantation and from Barbados, to such far flung places as the far north, England and North Africa. He must find his own way, and his own way of surviving. Though free, Washington is, until late in the novel living in fear of capture and possible return to his former master.
Washington Black is a great big saga of a story that takes a cast of characters on a voyage of discovery around the globe, with the reader along for the ride. And, yes, as wonderful as advertised, and well deserving of this year’s Giller!