Washington Black is a young slave in Barbados.
Slave life is brutal. Author Esi Edugyan doesn’t try to hide that fact. Children are beaten. Families are separated. Lives end. It’s normal.
Luckily, Wash has Big Kit to look after him. She’s an imposing woman and fellow slave. Having taken a liking to him, she watches after Wash and tries her best to keep him safe. He has no parents, so Kit is the closest thing he has to a friend or relative.
But then, the slave owner’s brother Titch summons Wash to his quarters. Kit and Wash instantly know it’s likely the last time they’ll see one another. Luckily, Titch is kind to Wash. The alternative could have been much worse.
Under Titch’s tutelage, Wash flourishes with his drawing. In Wash, Titch finds someone and something worth fighting for. As an abolitionist, Titch is invested in helping Wash become free.
Unfortunately, their escape is rocky. They embark on what under other circumstances would be an adventure, but in this context has much heavier stakes. When Titch soon leaves Wash, presumably in the throes of mental illness, Wash feels adrift. That makes two caretakers who pledged their love and then disappeared.
Where is his true home? Who is his true home? Wash has trouble finding either of those things, keeping himself emotionally unavailable to both.
Washington Black does best in the lead-up to the near-fantastical escape from the plantation. The burgeoning friendship between Wash and Titch, the possibilities of a plantation under a secret abolitionist’s control…the story is captivating in the first section.
But once Wash finds himself moorless, so does the book. Just a bit. While Wash’s wanderings and run-ins are interesting, it becomes difficult to find a patch of story to grab onto.
The end of this book is satisfying and brings it together in a lovely way.