The child of Ghanian immigrants in Canada, Esi Edugyan’s novels to date have focused on historical fiction. His latest piece, Washington Black, is little different, being based on a sugar plantation in Barbados during the slavery era. However, as the New Yorker’s Laura Miller writes in her review, Washington Black’s focus on the relationships between men adds a new level of emotion to the author’s best work yet.
The book focuses on George Washington (Wash) Black, an unlettered, twelve-year-old slave, and Christopher (Titch) Wilde, a scientist and brother of Wash’s brutal master. “Titch’s inquiry marks the beginning of a friendship both beautiful and tormenting, liberating and circumscribed. Titch is the first white man to treat Wash decently. It is such an alien experience that, when the young slave is directed to sit at the same table with the stranger, and perches on an upholstered chair, it seems so soft that it’s “monstrous,” Miller writes.
When the pair leave Barbados by airship, the story takes a twist from the horrors of slavery to an adventure, but it still uses the lingering of its timeframe to create a new level of context to what would normally be a basic story of friendship between two men otherwise. Does Wash love Titch? Not romantically, but in some other sense that he barely understands—the way, perhaps, that a son might love a father. Back at Faith, Big Kit told Wash that to be free is to “go wherever it is you wanting,” and yet the prospect of separating from his mentor fills Wash with “a panic so savage it felt as if I were being asked to perform some brutal act upon myself, to sever my own throat,” Miller writes.
Even at the end, the parallel between the time the story is set in and Wash’s own story is clear. ““I am a Freeman now in possession of my own person,” the eighteen-year-old Wash narrates. But while he has stepped out of the existential bondage he was born into, eluded the slave catcher, and, finally, outlived the institution of West Indies slavery itself, which Britain outlawed in 1833, he isn’t really free. Of his obsession with Titch, Wash observes, “Something in me would not cease—a great lunging forward, a striving rooted as deeply in me as the thirst for water.” That striving—the delicate, indomitable, and often doomed power of human love—haunts “Washington Black,” Miller concludes.