A slave escaping the perils of slavery in a hot air balloon, called a cloud-cutter, is perhaps the first time I’ve read this type of experience. Yet Esi Edugyan made it work in her third novel, Washington Black.
Eleven-year-old slave George Washington Black (known as Wash) was born into slavery and spends his days cutting sugar cane on a plantation in Barbados. With the protection and guidance of an older woman slave named Kit, Wash learns how to navigate the world he finds himself in.
Pretty much right away at the beginning of the book, we see the atrocities of slavery when the cruel master cuts off the head of a slave who committed suicide because he, along with other slaves, believe that they would be born again in their homeland. The master then proclaims that you cannot be born again without a head to the rest of the slaves on the plantation. The whole display is cruel but shows that plantation owners regarded black lives and furthermore, black bodies with no sort of dignity or respect even in death. Kit though still clings to this idea and convinces Wash that he too can come to her homeland in Africa, when they die.
Their harsh English master, Erasmus Wilde, is the very definition of evil and mean-spirited and Wash is basically living and working to die on the plantation, that’s until Erasmus’ brother, Titch comes to visit.
Titch is a scientist and a sympathizer and when he comes to Faith plantation he comes with the hope of completing his experiment, something he calls the cloud-cutter. Titch chooses Wash to be his servant merely because of his stature and weight and as a result that choice changes the direction of Wash’s life.
Through Titch, Wash learns to read and write and finds his talent in illustration. As the days press on, Wash and Titch grow close eventually escaping the plantation via the cloud-cutter that they have been working on, after a few unfortunate incidents on the plantation they must flee and do so in the dead of the night.
What does it mean to be free?
Esi manages to make the story less about the bondage of slavery and more about escaping the slavery that lives within ourselves.
Through his talent, fortune and the protection of Titch, Wash escapes to Virginia then the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco; on a quest to always find answers. First with Titch then on his own.
During his journey slavery is abolished and he is abandoned by Titch left to navigate the world on his own still as a young boy. Although slavery is over he is is still hunted by a bounty hunter that has made it his personal mission to find the boy. And although he is free he still lives and exists in the shadows never setting any roots and always living in fear of being caught.
Wash struggles with finding his place and to define what freedom really means. As a young boy, he asked Kit to tell him what freedom meant and she replied ‘when you can go anywhere and do anything you please.’ Although Wash is free he still feels as though he is in bondage and although his journey takes him around the world it is really a journey of self-worth and self-discovery.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and Wash was such a beautiful character that you can’t help to like him, and I love that about the book because even though society sees him as an ugly animal his gentle spirit shows otherwise.
How about you? What were your thoughts about Washington Black? If you haven’t read it yet are you going to read it?