George Washington Black was a field slave in Barbados when, at age 11, he is pulled away from everyone he knows to become the assistant to Christopher Wilde, brother of his master, Erasmus. Christopher (known as “Titch”) treats Wash not as a slave but as a valued helper, and Wash starts to see and understand his own value and develop his own passion for nature and for drawing. But regardless of Titch’s respect for Wash and disdain for the institution of slavery, Wash is still vulnerable to the whims of Erasmus Wilde, and when he happens to be witness to a family tragedy, Titch understands that it is time for them both to make an escape. So they soar into the skies in Titch’s cloud-cutter, a flying machine similar to a hot air balloon, and Wash’s adventures begin.
This book by Esi Edugyan is a delight. Wash’s journey to understanding himself, the world, and his place in it is enjoyably complex while also being a good yarn. The main adventure, as it turns out, is Wash’s internal journey. Traveling to the Arctic, exploring the shore of Nova Scotia, and setting up an exhibition in London are great and all, but their importance is in their effect on Wash and on his relationships, for its Wash’s relationships with others that form the heart of the book.
The central relationship is Wash’s relationship with Titch, and Edugyan does not avoid how complex that relationship is. Titch may not himself approve of slavery, but he benefits from it, and it’s not clear that he’s ever able to see Wash as an equal, not matter what he might say. Other key characters include Big Kit, the slave woman who looks after Wash. And then there’s Tanna, a woman Wash meets in adulthood. Tanna’s relationship with her father, who both respects her and looks down on her, is another complex relationship that could have been explored more.
This is a book I expect to recommend to many people. It doesn’t shy away from the hard topics, but it’s not mired in misery either. I appreciated and enjoyed so much about it. Perhaps you will too?