Although this book starts on a Barbados plantation in 1830, it is not really about slavery but follows a young slave, Washington Black, over six years, starting with his life on the Faith plantation.
As the book begins, Washington is 11 years old, and the owner of the plantation has just died. The new master is the nephew, Erasmus Black, a cruel man. One night, Wash and the woman who is his protector, Big Kit from Dahomey, are summoned to wait on the table, something unheard of for slaves working in the field. At the end of the dinner, Erasmus’s brother Christopher, known as Titch, engages Washington to help him with his hot air balloon—not because he had seen something exceptional in the boy but because he would be the right weight for ballast.
But Washington’s association with Titch is life-changing. Unlike his brother, Titch is kind to Wash and encourages his talent for drawing. All goes well until the visit of a cousin, Mister Philip, sets in motion a series of events that put Wash in danger. One night, Titch and Wash take to the skies in the hot air balloon and escape the plantation.
Erasmus, furious at the loss of his slave, sets a bounty hunter, Willard, on their trail. They manage to shake him off by going to the Arctic, where Titch is looking for his father, an explorer. Wash eventually makes it back to Nova Scotia without Titch, where he settles down, although the shadow of Willard continues to haunt him. His scientific talents come to the fore after a meeting with a father and daughter team of natural scientists.
I loved Esi Edugyan’s writing and the way she draws characters. Big Kit is a real presence: a big, fierce woman who could make Wash forget about the plantation: to him she was “a marvel, a witness to a world I could not imagine, beyond the reach of the huts and the vicious fields of Faith”. I would have liked to have seen more of her. Mister Philip, while seemingly privileged, is really just a drifter, a man with nothing to live for: “His great passions were not passions, but distractions: one day was but a bridge to the next. He took in the world with a mild dissatisfaction, for the world was of little consequence.”
But Wash and Titch are the most vivid characters: Titch is like mercury; just when I thought I understood him, it turned out that I didn’t. Wash—the heart of the book—is bright and observant but cautious, in the way children become when their survival depends on being alert to any signs of danger.
This is a book about the different degrees of freedom. The hot air balloon is symbolic of escape and breaking bounds, but can only get them so far. In the plantation, Wash asks Big Kit what it means to be free. It means you can go “wherever it is you wanting”, she says, something unimaginable to Wash. When he does become a freedman, he is still a black man in a white man’s world and Willard is on his trail. Sometimes the emotional chains are harder to get rid of: there is a bond with Titch that is hard to break and a caution within Wash that keeps him from getting too close to anyone. And the free world isn’t everything he expects: “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.”
This is a thoughtful, well-written book.