Cover Image: Washington Black

Washington Black

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Member Reviews

When I picked up Washington Black, the latest novel by Esi Edugyan, I prepared myself for a challenging story about slavery, violence, and injustice. What I got was something much more layered and original. There’s a reason this book has received the accolades it has: it is a surprising and outstanding book.

The story begins with an 11-year-old slave, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, on Faith plantation on the island of Barbados. Faith is run by Erasmus Wilde who is vicious and violent. His brother, Titch, is a scientist, naturalist, and abolitionist. When Titch arrives at the plantation to work on his hot air balloon (you heard that right) that he calls a cloud-cutter, Wash is assigned as Titch’s personal servant. Over time, Wash develops a trust for Titch and a complex friendship develops between them.

But this is just the beginning. Titch and Wash leave the island abruptly but Wash is left to find his own way after Titch later disappears without a trace. The adventure that follows takes Wash to the US, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, Europe, and Morocco. He learns about the world and himself while uncovering surprising, and sometimes painful, truths along the way.

Esi Edugyan is masterful at developing characters that are full yet flawed; even our protagonists are human and selfish, they make mistakes, hurt others, and desire understanding and forgiveness. The settings are nuanced yet striking, almost as if they are additional characters in the story. There are whole lives packed into this book but it never feels overwhelming or too much. Edugyan lovingly offers us a world of brotherhood, invention, discovery, and freedom.

The depth of Washington Black was what I enjoyed most; there are many layers to this story that the reader can peel back to discover its powerful messages. There is a robustness and bold yet subtle movement to this book that draws you in. Incorporating elements of fantasy, horror, history, and adventure, Washington Black is remarkable in its marriage of terror and beauty, weight and subtlety, heartbreak and hope.

I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy adventures, historical fiction, full character development, and multilayered plots. Or to anyone because it really has something for everyone.
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It is easy to understand why "Washington Black" has received so much acclaim. 
George Washington Black, a slave in Barbados, known as Wash, is summoned by his master to become the manservant to his brother.  His brother, Christopher Wilde, known as Titch, is  visiting and is a man of may talents, including inventor who is hoping to build a flying machine.  He also is an abolitionist who takes Wash under his tutelage.  
Wash, in his own right, is a talented artist and the two create and work together.  When a tragedy on the plantation occurs and a bounty is placed on Wash's capture, Titch escapes with him and the adventure to faraway lands, including the Arctic, London and Morocco, begins. 
Edugyan's writing is so vivid and her portrayal of the horror of slavery is indescribable.  Above all, the definition of morality and its meaning to each character, as well as to the readers, will keep you engrossed from start to finish.
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Scientific intrigue and race relations are the engines that drive this novel. George Washington Black, nicknamed “Wash,” is an eleven-year-old slave on a plantation in Barbados in the early 1800s. The man who runs the plantation is unsympathetic, and brutal, to the people he keeps as slaves. The man’s brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, however, is more forward thinking in both his views of slavery as well as his scientific inventiveness. He bargains with his brother to take on Wash as his assistant in his experimentation. While working with Titch, an accident disfigures Wash. This disfigurement marks him for life (the symbolic scar of slavery?). Eventually Titch takes Wash with him as he leaves Barbados and tries to move forward and on to other adventures, but Wash cannot escape his past. He confronts slavery, racism, prejudice and the emanating effects of each throughout his journeys. As with most books about journeys, the journey represents more than just the physical trip. The trajectory of Wash’s journey mirrors African-Americans’ historical struggle out of slavery towards freedom. Titch embodies well-intending people trying make right historical wrongs, but is it enough? I found this novel thought provoking and very well written. Highly recommended.
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Fascinating story, compelling and hard to put down. The reader will go to the most unexpected locations all the while rooting for the protagonist to succeed.
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WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan is a historical novel written primarily for adults which deals with questions of slavery and race. The main character, George Washington Black (called "Wash") was a slave in Barbados on a sugar plantation when (around 1830) his owner's brother, "Titch," selected him as an assistant of sorts. Together, Wash and Titch experience numerous adventures associated with inventions (like hot air balloons) and inter-continental travel (to the Arctic and elsewhere). This book is a dark read, dealing as it does with the face of evil and brutality and cruelty involved with violence perpetuated against Blacks.

Esi Edugyan's WASHINGTON BLACK was recently named to the short list for the Man Booker Prize (winner to be announced on October 16) and this title received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.  Read an excerpt and see a reading guide here.

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Washington Black is an imaginative novel that crosses boundaries, boundaries that exist in the story and boundaries that tend to hem in literature. It is a novel that is not easily classifiable, because it is very literary, but it also shows traits of fantasy and adventure. It is historical in setting, but does not allow this to confine its reach. A story of self discovery, Washington Black explores the topics of suffering and rebirth. It sounds like a fantastic novel, and the opening chapters prove this. What a perfect beginning! At 35 pages in, I knew I'd found the best novel of the year, an easy five-star rating. So what happened?

The fact is, Washington Black does little to sustain the wonder created in the opening chapters. The first several chapters are perfect. They're brutal, intelligent, and imaginative. I truly couldn't ask for more. The story opens with an amazingly drawn cast of characters, slaves and plantation owners on an estate in Barbados. We see the plight of the other slaves, as well as the conflicting natures of the plantation owner with his abolitionist-minded brother, through the eyes of young Washington Black—called Wash. The brutality of this particular plantation and the wonders set in motion by the brother, Titch, a scientist, create such a wonderful contrast. It's easy to imagine where this story might be going when Titch takes Wash under his wing, but it's a place that you, as the reader, want the story to go. It's magical, heartwarming, and full of imagery so palpable you can't deny its existence: a Vernes-esque journey around the world with a kindhearted scientist and his assistant, a child freed from slavery.

Unfortunately, this novel just can't maintain the forward movement it needs to claim its potential. The characters, while starting off great, did little to keep me invested in their stories. Sure, their adventure is wonderful, but their actions are wooden and their decisions based on inexplicable coincidences. They failed to carry me along on their adventure. The longer the story went on, the less I believed the magic the story was built on, the less I cared about the narrative.

In the end, I was left with too many questions, but not enough desire to find answers. What was really going on here? In a novel largely based on realism, it is easy to pick out the fantastical elements and analyze them. What was with the allusions to the spiritual personas of our characters: others that roam free of their selves? The existence of these “others” makes me wonder. Who was Washington Black? Was he a spirit of the self that existed in the opening chapters, a spirit making his way back to Dahomey? Was he reborn in the child Titch finds in Morocco? At the conclusion of Washington Black, I don't have any answers, only speculations. These questions display the intelligence of this novel and its author, but highlight the problem that it doesn't go far enough to provide answers or the will to learn the truth.

Washington Black is a powerful and imaginative story with so many great pieces. The writing is exceptionally powerful at times. It just doesn't keep it going, however, and the result is a firework that fizzles out long before the end. I recommend this novel to others, but with the caveat not to build your expectations too high in the beginning. Perhaps if I'd not done so, I would've walked away with warmer feelings regarding this story.
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Washington Black is a brilliant novel.  It tackles big serious issues, such as the meaning of life and of death and whether there is a line between them;  the intersection of science and fantasy; and perhaps most importantly, the meaning of freedom. And yet it is written in beautiful prose that if taken too lightly could carry the reader along the surface without encouraging a deeper search for meaning, for Wash’s story itself is mesmerizing. Near the end of the novel, which has been long listed for a Man Booker Award, Washington Black reflects on an obvious anguish, that life never belongs to any of us and that we can never really know the nature of another’s suffering. Washington Black the person and Washington Black the novel will stay with the reader for a long time. Highly recommended.
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I can tell the Booker judges are up for an adventure story this year. This story of a child enslaved in Barbados who ends up traveling the world thanks to a scientist/explorer/adventurer, and discovers his own artistic talents. He travels all over where we can see the plight of former slaves in different areas.

It was interesting to see the reality, quote unquote, of some countries ending slavery before others, while the economy was still dependent on the work of unpaid enslaved people. Long-standing racism, long-standing grudges. Still... it has this layer of unreality to the prose that made me less engaged than I wanted to be.
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Washington Black was a well written, engaging, interesting, and surprising story of slavery, science, and an unusual relationship. The title character comes of age in the most unexpected way. The author avoids most of the stereotypes of fiction based in thi time period. For the most part each of the characters are complex, realistic, and worthy of attention. So much so that I felt, at the end, a sense of loss. We wouldn’t be continuing the journey together. Immediately recommended this book to our fiction book club coordinator.
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This amazing novel tackles slavery and freedom, along with human cruelty, conflict, redemption, and love. It is a far-flung adventure tale, but more importantly, it is a coming of age story under incredibly difficult circumstances. Washington Black is a character that will linger in readers' minds, and his experiences make up a story that is beautifully written. Highly recommended.
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