We start in 1830. Faith Plantation. Barbados. Washington Black is 10 or 11. He’s not sure. Slavemasters are seldom dutiful about keeping their charges up to date on biographical nicities, but Author Edugyan Makes sure that even such missing details are important to the development of both character and plot.
Washington spends many of the first pages of the novel in nearly total bafflement of his status or purpose. At first, he’s a regular field hand, more or less in the custody of a woman named “Big Kit [we discover not much later that “Catherine” is her given name.] One day, the master’s younger brother comes for a visit. Washington [“Wash” as he is called] and Kit are summoned to the big house to serve at supper, duties for which their life in the fields have prepared them not at all.
During the course of the meal, brother Christopher shows an interest in Wash. He thinks the boy is just the right size to provide ballast for the hot air balloon he is building. He requests that Master (and older brother) Erasmus loan Wash to him while he prepares for the launch, which task will require that Wash remain under his care till the flight is accomplished.
Both Wash and Kit are mystified and apprehensive. Kit somehow procures a large nail, which she encourages Wash to use as a weapon in case Christopher tries some hanky-panky.
Spoiler alert: No hanky-panky.
Instead, Wash starts by helping lug equipment up the hill from which Christopher (“Titch” is his nickname) plans the take off. In the course of the preparations, Wash is revealed to have prodigious artistic talents which Titch thinks will be useful to expedition. In addition, he thinks Wash will be more useful if he’s able to do some reading, writing, and calculating. Suddenly, our hero is elevated above and beyond the status of slave and into territory that is not only unusual but probably illegal for one of his station.
Of course, things go wrong, and Wash is horribly burned and disfigured by an explosion of the hydrogen (no stable gases for this kind of thing in 1830) Titch is using to lift his craft into the sky. After a bit of healing time, though, takeoff is achieved, propelling Wash into a series of improbable but entirely believable adventures. The book’s structure fits squarely in the tradition of Picaresque literature, a tradition not much recognized today, but which stretches back to the 16th Century (Don Quixote) and beyond, and of which the world could use more.
We follow Wash for eight or ten years, during which time, he is shipwrecked, pursed by slavers, falls in love, and loses track of the benign master who was his source of sustenance as he escapes the plantation. As he matures, always a fugitive, highly recognizable as a slight black boy with a scarred face, he longs not only to avoid capture, but to find an identity and a place in the world. He also yearns for an explanation of his past. It’s a difficult collection of tasks that takes him from the tropics to the arctic, and Edugyan keeps us enthralled and in suspense the while.
I’ve not found a more compelling character nor a stronger fictional voice in my reading for the last couple of years. Dive into this one. You’ll be well-rewarded for the effort.