“Oh, how different the world did look from that height. Imagine it: my whole life I had lived on that brutish island and never had I seen its edges, never had I seen the ocean in its vastness, the white breakers rolling in upon the beaches. Never had I seen the roads, with their tiny men and tiny horses, the roof of Wilde Hall winking in the light. The island fell away on all sides, green, glittering…In the dusty light I saw the manicured fields of Faith Plantation, white lines cut into the earth. I stood shaken, confused by the incontestable beauty.”
There are some topics that are incredibly difficult to write into fiction. Events that shake the foundations of humanity’s self-understanding, such as slavery and the Holocaust, pose a particular set of problems for authors. How does one set about capturing the years or centuries of destruction and brutal coercion inflicted upon unimaginable numbers of people? With a background in genocide and human rights research, I have seen the tremendous impact that the arts can have on processes of reconciliation and repair for victims of atrocities. As an educational tool, the arts also have an incredible amount to offer future generations and a global audience. Fiction, in particular, forces a process of confrontation with uncomfortable truths in a format that requires both empathy and a willingness to hear what is being said.
Although there are many outstanding novels that deal with these topics (Sophie’s Choice by William Styron and Beloved by Toni Morrison are excellent examples), it is relatively rare to find one that is able to add new layers to existing histories. Writing about slavery in a way that extends beyond an examination of life as a slave is difficult. If not managed carefully, it can easily undermine the gravity and emotional weight of the individual and collective experience of such brutality. Esi Edugyan’s incredible novel, Washington Black, is an example of how unconventional storytelling can weave a multi-dimensional narrative that offers its own, unique layer of raw emotion to atrocity. The novel follows the 11 year old slave, George Washington Black, born and raised on Faith Plantation in Barbados. Wash is plucked from his circumstance by the enigmatic Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, a scientist whose brother, Erasmus Wilde, is Faith’s cruel and barbaric master. Following the suicide of the Wildes’ cousin, to which only Wash is a witness, Titch leads Wash through an incredibly daring escape via the ‘Cloud-cutter’ – a flying machine that Titch has designed and constructed on a nearby peak. From here, the two are launched into an incredible adventure, spanning continents. The result is a novel that tests the limits of what freedom can mean for a boy born into slavery and examines the complexities that surround compassion, intervention, and privilege.
“There were the fanged metal jaws of a mantrap meant to catch runaways, and the blood-blackened boulder upon which several men had been whipped dead, and there was the solitary redwood wide as a carriage, from which a weathered noose hung. And there were knife marks in the tree’s bark, where men had been pinned through the throat and left to perish, and there were the raw patches where the grass had not grown back since the bodies of the old and infirm had been set there to rot.
And above it all, pristine and untroubled, sat Wilde Hall, with its clear view to the sea – a sea turquoise and glistening with phosphorus, the miles of sand pure and white as salt.”
Washington Black is a courageous novel. In expanding the traditional parameters of fiction about atrocity, Edugyan certainly risked losing some of the emotional resonance that is virtually guaranteed when writing about events of such gravity. The story is one of adventure and escape, with a breadth and skewed realism that is reminiscent of Jules Verne. The skill, however, is in Edugyan’s ability to retain all of the raw violence and fear associated with fictional depictions of slavery whilst still challenging the narrative beyond conventional limits. Wash begins his life – and the novel – a slave on a sugar plantation. The plantation’s new master, Erasmus, is particularly brutal and Edugyan does not shy away from descriptions of the violence that characterises the life of the slaves. Yet within the first 100 pages of Washington Black, Wash is removed from all that he has known and Edugyan turns the novel into something new.
The character of Titch, the man who ‘borrows’ Wash as a temporary assistant and eventually assists his escape from Faith, is one of the novel’s most complex elements. Unlike his brother, Titch is an abolitionist who has come to Faith in part to document the abuses taking place. Following his escape with Wash, however, Titch abandons the boy and disappears. Much of the novel’s remaining pages are devoted to Wash’s attempts to navigate life alone in a world that is almost universally inhospitable. With his abandonment of Wash, Titch’s motivations are thrown into question. Wash asks himself why Titch would remove him from all that he has known, educate him to a point of isolation from his fellow slaves, and then abandon him. Wash’s conclusion is an unsettling one:
“Titch’s actions were the truer measure, and he had abandoned me, in the end. Once he’d finished his papers on aerostation and the treatment of slaves on Faith, I had lost some value for him. I had become, perhaps, too solid, too heavy, too real – an object to be got rid of. He had mounted a frail Cloud-cutter, crossed a heaving black sea and walked vulnerable into a wall of snow, as though even the risking of his own life were worth being shed of me.
How could he have treated me so, he who congratulated himself on his belief that I was his equal? I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those who were there to be saved, and those who did the saving.”
The turn in Wash’s estimation of Titch is uncomfortable. By this point, the reader is relatively assured of Titch’s good motivations and his seemingly selfless decision to rescue Wash from Faith, even at his own peril. The discomfort that arises from Wash’s conclusion is, however, one of the novel’s strongest and best executed themes. We easily recognise the foundations of inequality that underlie events of explicit racism and prejudice. Washington Black calls us to perceive the more insidious manifestations of inequality inherent in the idea that the ‘other’ requires saving and that the privileged (in many cases, ‘us’) are the ones to do it. The notion of the ‘white man’s burden’ is nothing new and, for those of us who live in privilege, awareness of the dynamic must come alongside a willingness to examine our own motivations. Washington Black is not necessarily a condemnation of Titch and his actions. Titch’s motivations remain sufficiently complex and mysterious that the reader must do away with the hope of receiving a simple answer. His motives and, by extension, our own are, however, something that should be examined in all of their true complexity.
This insistence on complexity and an avoidance of ‘easy’ answers is something that Washington Black carries throughout. To continue the novel on Faith, as an examination of slavery’s practices and direct consequences, would be relatively simple compared to what Edugyan seeks to achieve. Through Titch and the removal of Wash from Barbados, Edugyan forces us to confront the very concept of freedom for someone like Wash. Not only must he exist as an ex-slave in a world that is not welcoming, his face is brutally scarred from a gas explosion that occurs during construction of the Cloud-cutter. His physical scars are a clear manifestation of the separation that his status as an ex-slave and a black man forces upon him. Despite his escape from Faith, Wash is never entirely free.
“I could feel the day’s exhaustion descending on me. ‘What it like, Kit? Free’? I felt her shift in the dirt, and then she was gathering me in close, her hot breath in my ear. ‘Oh, child, it like nothing in this world. When you free, you can do anything’. ‘You go wherever it is you wanting’? ‘You go wherever it is you wanting. You wake up any time you wanting. When you free’, she whispered, ‘someone ask you a question, you ain’t got to answer. You ain’t got to finish no job you don’t want to finish. You just leave it’. I closed my heavy eyes, wondering. ‘Is really so’? She kissed my hair just behind my ear. ‘Mm hm. You just set down the shovel, and you go’.”
Where the novel’s breadth lends itself to asking some important questions about freedom, the expansiveness is also, at times, problematic. At just 334 pages, Washington Black spans so many continents that it can deal in most events only superficially. At certain points in the novel, I found myself willing the pace to slow a little and allow the plot to relish in its presences. The book could easily have been double the length and still retained its momentum, whilst permitting the reader to catch a breath. In this sense, I wish that Edugyan had allowed herself a little more indulgence. There are characters that I hoped would have more time to develop and plot points that truly required greater elaboration. Wash’s fear at being uncovered by John Willard, the man hired by Erasmus Wilde to find Wash and return him to Faith “dead or alive,” is palpable. Yet, the hold of this fear over the direction of the narrative is surprisingly underwhelming. It felt as though the novel had slightly too many threads to tie up in such a relatively short novel. There is something to be said, however, for the manner in which this approach of overcrowding the narrative communicates some of the restless fear that Wash carries with him as he moves around the world.
Washington Black is an awe-inspiring example of how one can wade through the barbarism of mass atrocity and extract a fictional narrative of luminous presence and complex pain. Even where left a little wanting for space and development, the characters have a fierce vivacity that transcends the pages. Wash’s own voice is perfectly realised and acute with the painful reflections that lend the novel its depth. Washington Black is a tremendous feat in storytelling and should, alongside Toni Morrison’s Beloved, be required reading for anyone looking to achieve a fuller understanding of slavery, in both its experiences and implications.