From My Bookshelf: Washington Black

By Lynn Willoughby

Washington Black ~ Esi Edugyan

This Canadian author’s latest novel was a finalist for the Man Booker prize, and winner of the Giller Prize.  It is a big, complicated historical novel with locations all over the world.
It begins on a sugar cane plantation in Barbados in 1830.  Washington Black is a young slave boy of about eleven, and all he has ever known is backbreaking work in the heat of the cane fields, the brutality of the Master and the hopelessness of a slave.  Bit Kit – a large black woman who survived the trip from Africa in the hold of a ship, is sometimes his protectress, has occasionally shown him tenderness.  She has also broken several of his ribs when she was angry with him.  But she is the closest thing to family he has in his life.
Faith Plantation is run by Erasmus Wilde, who sees the blacks as sub-human and there are reminders of his way of thinking everywhere – the whipping rock, the hanging noose, the graveyard.  It is a life of constant terror every day for every one of the slaves.  Then one day Erasmus’ brother Christopher arrives for a a visit from England and Washington’s life changes forever.  
Christopher is a scientist, interested in aeronautics.  He is eccentric, wildly impractical and prone to depression.  He selects Washington to be his man servant as he works on his “cloud cutter” – a flying machine carried by a hydrogen filled bladder.
When a bounty is placed on Washington’s head, he and Christopher take off in the cloud cutter.  Their flight takes them along the eastern coast of America and finally to a very remote outpost on Hudson Bay.
This is an adventure story like no other.  Wash, born a slave, finally makes it to Nova Scotia and becomes a free man – able to work on his drawing and further his passion as a naturalist and explorer of all things that live in the ocean.
The novel did unravel somewhat for me as Wash travels the world.  He can barely read, has some math skills, no discernible source of income, yet is able to make many long ocean voyages to too many venues. The theme of belonging to a family got lost for me at the end.
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Who Knew?  

In 1861 the missionary Francesco Borghero was invited to the parade ground in the capital of Dahomey.  The king is eager to show off the finest unit in his army.  There are 3000 heavily armed soldiers.  The general s a woman, as are all 3000 of her troops – the famed corps of “Amazons”.