Washington Black is one of those books I heard about months ago and has been vaguely on my radar ever since. When I realized I’d be going to the Caribbean in January, I picked up a copy at a local bookstore because I like to read stories that are set in the places I’m visiting while I travel. This is a story about a young enslaved boy from Barbados in the 1800s who, with a white man, builds a flying machine and ends up in the arctic. From the description, Washington Black didn’t seem to have the same notes as typical novels about enslavement. Indeed, the book is complex: it is both an upfront historical fiction and a layered examination of the enduring consequences of enslavement on a human scale.
I don’t think that Washington Black is a book you enjoy; rather, it’s a book that you consume peeking out between your fingers. Reading this book is akin to waiting for the other shoe to drop. Instead of keeping Washington confined to the plantation, Edugyan sends him around the world on a fantastic journey, but he is haunted incessantly by his past. Washington grapples with a two-headed demon: the trauma of enslavement and the subsequent guilt that comes with escape. Experiencing Washington’s emotions and watching his perceptions shift and clarify as he ages, you sense that Washington’s struggle is a modern one. It seems likely that Edugyan’s titular character is an allegory for the deep scars and trans-generational trauma experienced by descendants of enslaved people in the West.
The entire novel takes this literary approach. For example, there is the impossible flying vessel called the cloud cutter which is, undoubtedly, a symbol for freedom and its unattainable nature. Washington also follows Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey wherein the hero must be called to adventure, cross thresholds into new worlds, and return a new man. Throughout, Edugyan’s writing is lush and fills each new landscape with as much color and character as the last. Likewise, the overall dark nature of the book is interrupted with spots of ironic humor and tenderness. Compared to other books of a similar genre, like Colson Whitehead’s alternative history Underground Railroad, Washington Black is a much easier read both literally and emotionally.
Washington Black is an accomplished work of historical fiction which takes readers into far reaches of the world but whose main focus is on the acutely personal human toll of enslavement of all those involved, modern readers included. It’s not on my “must read” list, but I recommend it for anyone who is in a book club and is looking for something less “book-clubby,” there is a lot of nuance to tease out in this book. For those readers who enjoyed the concept of Underground Railroad or Colson Whitehead’s other works, you’ll probably like Washington Black. It’s a first-rate historical fiction, absolutely.
Readers who don’t like violence or violence against children should be advised that the first quarter of the book includes graphic descriptions of enslavement on a Caribbean plantation.