This book delivers everything it promises on the cover: a surreal balloon ride through a tropical jungle, a black boy holding fast with no control over things and an pith-helmeted explorer with a telescope looking like he knows where he’s going.
Washington Black, as the name suggests, is a slave boy and the explorer is the eccentric brother of his owner on a slave plantation in Barbados. They are drawn together, Titch because of the boy’s uncanny drawing ability and Wash for the enticement of freedom. But what is freedom?
This question is the crux of Washington Black’s life. Is it as simple as “going wherever it is you wanting”, as Big Kit says? She’s his first protector on the plantation, but knows nothing of freedom. Is it an escape from man’s cruelty? For a while, for Wash, it seems it is. He escapes the plantation with Titch leaving a dead man behind, and they fly, sail and freeze but Wash never truly escapes, even when abandoned by Titch as a free man to make what he can of himself and his talent. There is a bounty hunter who follows him for so long I wondered if he was as much a real man as the unshakable shadow of slavery. And Edugyan, though Wash, asks such an obvious question I am ashamed never to have though of it in such simple terms before: why was slavery really abolished?
“You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than the actual damage it wreaks on black men”.
But don’t think this is a grim tale for white self-flagellation. First and foremost it is a 19th century adventure story with many rich settings: from the Caribbean to the Arctic, London and Europe, and a formidable group of characters, all seen through Wash’s receptive senses. He’s a compelling narrator with an odd mix of naivety and brilliance—an unusually observant storyteller. Washington Black grows up, finds new friends, falls in love, becomes a scientist, artist and collector of oddities in the natural world. If you’re looking for an answer to the question: what is freedom? you won’t find it neatly packaged here. Esi Edugyan offers many different examples of enslavement and freedom to think about and discuss.
If you belong to a book club that likes an engaging read followed by some pretty serious philosophical discussion, you could do a lot worse than recommending Washington Black.