There are echoes of Toni Morrison in Esi Edugyan’s prose, and the acclaim she garnered for Washington Black, her third novel, is justified. Edugyan conjures a tale — told through the eyes and mind of a precocious slave boy on his way to becoming a free man — that is fantastical yet plausible, taking the reader from Barbados to Nova Scotia to Morocco.
Washington Black, Wash as he’s known, is aided by Titch Wilde, an eccentric white man and younger brother of Erasmus Wilde, the brutal master of Faith Plantation, where slaves toil in the sugarcane until they drop. Decent where Erasmus is sadistic, Titch is a scientist, explorer, seeker of curiosities, and secret abolitionist. But although he defies the social and cultural norms of the time, Titch is a white man, and between him and Wash there will always be an unbridgeable gap, as indelible as the “F” branded on Wash’s chest.
The unusual relationship between Wash and Titch is the heart of the novel. Forced to spirit Wash off Faith Plantation to spare him a certain death, he exposes the boy to a wider world where the color of his skin is ever a mark of inferiority and his physical body a target. The longing that competes with bitterness in Wash’s heart and soul is summed up when he tells Titch, “I was nothing to you. You never saw me as equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.”