Thursday, December 6, 2018

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Most years I read the Giller prize winner and, often, I am very disappointed.  In the odd year I don't even bother as I can tell from the description the book won't be for me.  But not this year - Washington Black was a fantastic book and Edugyan was highly deserving of the prize.  I will say I also enjoyed her previous winning novel, Half-Blood Blues, but I think this one was better.

When the action begins Washington Black is an eleven year old slave on a Barbados sugar plantation.  The ownership of the plantation has recently changed hands and the slaves are treated very cruelly.  Washington keeps his head down and tries to survive with the protection of Big Kit, an adult female slave.  Early on she suggests suicide might be a better alternative for them and paints for Washington a beautiful picture of how it will lead to freedom.  However, when another slave attempts suicide he is severely punished and Big Kit abandons that plan.

One night Big Kit and Wash are asked to serve a meal in the big house.  There Wash is singled out by the plantation owner's eccentric brother, Titch, who is an abolitionist and a scientist.  Wash is sent to live with Titch and to aid in his scientific experiments - which for the most part revolve around crafting a hot air balloon with the capacity to cross an ocean.  Wash is fearful of living with Titch, but for the most part is treated well.

However, one night a man dies in circumstances that place Wash under suspicion and Titch decides to risk his family's wrath by helping Wash to escape the island.  They travel in Titch's not fully perfected hot air balloon and make a crash landing on a cargo ship which carries them to the eastern US.  There they run from a bounty hunter who has been charged with finding Wash, dead or alive.  Ultimately with the assistance of the underground railroad they make their way to the Canadian Arctic where Titch's father, who he thought was dead, is conducting his own research.  There Titch ultimately abandons Wash who spends the rest of his life trying to recover from that.

Though ostensibly free, Wash lives in constant fear for his life as he believes the bounty hunter is after him even years after slavery was abolished in Barbados.  He travels to Atlantic Canada where he becomes the assistant to another scientist, and the lover to his daughter.  Together they travel to London where they are setting up an aquarium and take trips to the Netherlands and Morocco to try to resolve what has happened to Titch.

Part adventure story, part study in human relationships and very much a treatise on the ills of slavery and discrimination, this is a fantastic book.

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