Summary and book reviews of Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black

by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan X
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
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  • Published:
    Sep 2018, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg

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About this Book

Book Summary

A dazzling new novel about a boy who rises from the ashes of slavery to become a free man of the world.

George Washington Black, or "Wash," an eleven-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is terrified to be chosen by his master's brother as his manservant. To his surprise, the eccentric Christopher Wilde turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Soon Wash is initiated into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky, where even a boy born in chains may embrace a life of dignity and meaning - and where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash's head, Christopher and Wash must abandon everything. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic. What brings Christopher and Wash together will tear them apart, propelling Wash even further across the globe in search of his true self.

From the blistering cane fields of the Caribbean to the frozen Far North, from the earliest aquariums of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black tells a story of self-invention and betrayal, of love and redemption, of a world destroyed and made whole again, and asks the question, What is true freedom?

Part I

Faith Plantation, Barbados

1830

1

I might have been ten, eleven years old – I cannot say for certain – when my first master died.

No one grieved him; in the fields we hung our heads, keen­ing, grieving for ourselves and the estate sale that must follow. He died very old. I saw him only at a distance: stooped, thin, asleep in a shaded chair on the lawn, a blanket at his lap. I think now he was like a specimen preserved in a bottle. He had outlived a mad king, outlived the slave trade itself, had seen the fall of the French Empire and the rise of the British and the dawn of the industrial age, and his usefulness, surely, had passed. On that last evening I remember crouching on my bare heels in the stony dirt of Faith Plantation and pressing a palm flat against Big Kit's calf, feeling the heat of her skin baking up out of it, the strength and power of her, while the red sun­light settled in the cane all around us. Together, silent, we watched as the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Big Kit tells Washington that "If you dead, you wake up again in your homeland. You wake up free." How does this line resonate at the end of the book, in the final moments as Wash asks about Dahomey and looks out into the horizon?
  2. Why do you think Big Kit didn't tell Wash that she was his mother? Do you think he would have responded to Titch's offer differently had he known? How might his life have been different?
  3. Another secret kept in the novel is when Philip delays giving Titch the news of his father's death—which turns out not to be true. How does this lie compare to Big Kit's? How is Titch's response different from Wash's?
  4. Wash describes his scar from the explosion with the Cloud Cutter as "the ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Beyond her strong characterization, Edugyan just plain writes well. Her story is bright and fresh, avoiding common clichés and building anticipation for the next bend in the story's road. Her descriptions of the Arctic cold and the dry heat of the desert are palpably real. What's more, she makes Washington's interests our own – many readers will likely spend some time exploring the marine life he studies or the aeronautic devices of the 19th century with which he comes into close contact. From the first page you are fully invested, ready and willing to follow the young protagonist wherever he may lead.   (Reviewed by Natalie Vaynberg).

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Media Reviews

The Guardian (UK)
A historical epic with much to say about the present-day world.

Publishers Weekly
Starred and Boxed Review. Edugyan's magnificent third novel again demonstrates her range and gifts ... Crafted in supple, nuanced prose, Edugyan's novel is both searing and beautiful.

Booklist
Starred Review. Wonderful ... Eloquent ... Brilliant ... Wash and Titch are so alive as to be unforgettable ... This important novel from the author of the superb Half-Blood Blues belongs in every library.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. High adventure fraught with cliffhanger twists marks this runaway-slave narrative, which leaps, sails, and soars from Caribbean cane fields to the fringes of the frozen Arctic and across a whole ocean ... A thoughtful, boldly imagined ripsnorter that broadens inventive possibilities for the antebellum novel.

Author Blurb Sandra Newman, author of The Country of Ice Cream Star
Washington Black is a brilliantly absorbing picaresque; a book that combines the unflinching depiction of violence with a lyrical, hallucinatory beauty.

Author Blurb Attica Locke, author of Bluebird, Bluebird
Washington Black is nothing short of a masterpiece...This book is an epic adventure and a heartfelt tale about love and morality and their many contradictions. I loved it.

Reader Reviews

Eleanor Calder

Meaning of Freedom
Our perception of freedom is challenged through out the book. The historical shift of the meaning of freedom for all people takes the reader on a troubled and creative journey.

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Beyond the Book

STEM Fields Lack Diversity

Esi Edugyan's Washington Black becomes an apprentice to a man of science and cultivates a far-reaching understanding of scientific and mathematical concepts – something that would never have been expected of a child born into slavery. He contributes his great mind to the aeronautical pursuits of his teacher as well as to the idea of an aquarium for the people of London. (See more about the Publica Aquaria)

Benjamin BannekerNobody would be surprised to learn that, until very recently, science was the realm of the white male. Even now, STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) struggle to diversify. Yet it is clear that diversity is key to a robust and effective world of science. The most basic example of a lack of diversity...

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