By: Esi Edugyan
George Washington Black was born a slave. At twelve years old, his only friend and companion is Big Kit, the old slave woman who took him in and raised him as her own. Their days are long and brutal working in the sugar cane fields of Barbados on Faith Plantation. When their old master, Richard Black, unexpectedly dies, his cruel nephew, Erasmus Wilde, steps in to take his place.
The slaves suffer widespread brutality at the hands of Erasmus, and many consider taking their own lives in the hopes that their spirits will return to their homelands. Washington is among them. However, the master’s brother Christopher Wilde, affectionately known as Titch, shows up one day and removes Wash from his field duties. Instead, Wash is to help Titch with an experiment called the Cloud Cutter, an airboat believed impossible to build.
During their time together, Wash and Titch build a friendship both despised and uncharacteristic for their time. Yet the disparity between the white man and his young slave assistant is plain to see. The greatest challenge they will face is learning to see one another as human.
Washington Black is a dark novel rife with suicidal themes, betrayal, and the small glimmers of hope not often given by slaves of 1830.
Edugyan’s writing is inspired and lively but also filled with a bitterness well conveyed and understood. I can see why she was nominated for so many awards. The story, while a tale of how a young slave learns to be his own person, is overall horrifying. I wanted to finish the novel because I enjoyed the writing style, however, the deeper I went, the worse I felt.
This story broke my heart and hurt my mind. It made me angry and reproachful. I felt as if I witness the brutality with my own eyes and would sometimes flinch from the pages as if I had just watched someone get cracked in the face. Books like this make one realize how much we may wish that the dark parts of history were all just a bad dream, but they weren’t. Those times were very real and perhaps even more real than the sparkling moments. Telling the dark side of history in such an honest fashion is stripping and made me feel a bit naked, but I walked away feeling like I had learned something.
The funniest thing about this novel is how much it made me feel like it would have been assigned as a book to read in school. Somehow this would have been a story perfect for writing an analysis of the human spirit, and I read it for fun. I read it for fun and it caused me grief.
An overarching theme of this book, at least in my eyes, is the concept that we, as people, are not bound to those who give us opportunity just as we are not bound to those who would seek to strip opportunity away. Make your own destiny. Forge your own path though it may be very painful. Each person must carry the burden of making a life they feel is worth living and making amends with the demons that would keep them up at night.
Edugyan captures the oddness and spontaneity of life. The characters were distinct with real personalities. They felt like they could come right off the page. That statement goes for even minor characters. Everyone had a purpose and a place in the story no matter how small.
The ending was hard as well, but I will not spoil it for you. If you think you can brave a book written as I have described it, be my guest. Just know you will likely not come out the same.
I could not re-read it, but I don’t think I will need to. It stuck.
Overall rating: 4
P.S. The cover is a lie. Read it if you want to understand my meaning.