Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. September 18, 2018. A.A. Knopf.
George Washington Black, or "Wash," an eleven-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is terrified to be chosen by his master's brother as his manservant. To his surprise, the eccentric Christopher Wilde turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Soon Wash is initiated into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky, where even a boy born in chains may embrace a life of dignity and meaning--and where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash's head, Christopher and Wash must abandon everything. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic. What brings Christopher and Wash together will tear them apart, propelling Wash even further across the globe in search of his true self. From the blistering cane fields of the Caribbean to the frozen Far North, from the earliest aquariums of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black tells a story of self-invention and betrayal, of love and redemption, of a world destroyed and made whole again, and asks the question, What is true freedom?
Why Washington Black Matters
Washington Black has everything I want in a teachable novel. It requires all of the good reading skills encouraged by English teachers, and there are plenty of passages worthy of close reading and literary analysis. The text is rich with symbolism through Edugyan’s spectacular use of landscape and setting, as well as through the technology and oceanic life Wash encounters throughout his journey. I can see poring over passages with students discussing all of the ways Edugyan uses imagery to heighten the mood of the text. This is the kind of language that doesn’t get in the way of students’ appreciation of the story, but still allows them to understand the layers at work within the novel.
The text also has a pretty speedy plot, particularly in the first half of the book. As both a bildungsroman and an adventure story, the novel uses a structure that students’ will find familiar and easy-to-access. Wash comes of age as he travels from place to place, learning something new about himself and the world in each destination. While I wouldn’t call this an episodic journey, some of the text does have an Odyssean feel with Wash encounter new perils and opportunities at each stop in his journey. Edugyan, however, plays with both of these templates allowing for surprises for the reader as well as ample opportunity for discussion of literary traditions and why authors use and break them. There’s also a subtle magical realism to the text, which is a genre that many students are likely unfamiliar with.
The characters are endearing, yet complex. I adore Wash, while still finding some of his choices frustrating. And while I initially put Titch on a pedestal and found his and Wash’s relationship inspiring, Edugyan requires her readers to examine that initial positive reaction and look more closely at the ingrained biases of this character. This masterful characterization would be so interesting to discuss with students who may be more used to seeing characters as good or evil, even if that’s not how they experience people in the real world. And while there are several all-out villains in Washington Black, Edugyan also gives us nuanced characters who do good things because of questionable motives or even overt prejudice. I love that Washington Black subtly challenges the concept of a “white savior” that we see in so much classic literature through these fully developed characters. In fact, this would be a great book to either pair with or replace Huckleberry Finn. This is a book that will challenge students as readers, thinkers, and humans, while promoting empathy and allowing for difficult but essential conversations in the classroom.
Themes and Social Issues: Freedom, friendship & companionship, loneliness & isolation, forgiveness, coming-of-age, American slavery, implicit bias & racism.
Literary Features: Washington Black is a literary bildungsroman that pairs two unlikely companions and follows their adventure from the Caribbean to the Arctic Circle and beyond. The novel is rich in its characterization. We not only follow Wash from childhood to young adulthood, but we witness his evolving view of Titch (Christopher Wilde) as he matures and sees more of the world. Edugyan’s writing is laden with imagery and symbolism. Each setting our characters arrive in is described in detail that establishes both place and mood, and Wash’s exploration of sea creatures when he arrives in Canada offers readers the chance to interpret complex symbols and what it means to be free.
Pairs Well With: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Underground Railroad, The Odyssey
Content to Consider: The violence perpetrated by the slave owner Erasmus Wilde is difficult to read, but appropriate for the subject matter and depicts the immense cruelty of slavery. The n-word is used casually both by violently racist characters and white characters who perceive themselves as kind. There is one brief sexual encounter written in vague, poetic language.
Grade Level Recommendation: 10th-12th.
Thank you A.A.Knopf for providing me with a free copy of Washington Black in exchange for an honest review.