Washington Black (Edugyan)

Washington Black 
Esi Edugyan, 2018
Knopf Doubleday
352 pp.

Longlisted, 2018 Man Booker Prize

From the author of the award-winning international best seller Half-Blood Blues comes 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? (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—1977 or 1978
Where—Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Education—University of Victoria; Johns Hopkins University
Awards—Giller Prize; Anisfield-Wolf Book Award
Currently—lives in Victoria, British Columbia

Esi Edugyan is a Canadian novelist, born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, to Ghanaian immigrant parents. She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and Johns Hopkins University before publishing her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, in 2004.

Despite favourable reviews for her first novel, Edugyan had difficulty securing a publisher for her second fiction manuscript. She spent some time as a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany, which inspired her to write another novel, Half-Blood Blues, about a mixed-race jazz musician in World War II-era Europe who is abducted by the Nazis as a "Rhineland Bastard."

Published in 2011, Half-Blood Blues was shortlisted for that year's Man Booker Prize, Scotiabank Giller Prize, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and Governor General's Award for English language fiction. She was one of two Canadian writers, alongside Patrick deWitt, to make all four award lists in 2011. On November 8, 2011 she won the Giller Prize. Again, alongside deWitt, Half-Blood Blues was also shortlisted for the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. In April 2012, Half-Blood Blues also won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

In 2018, Edugyan released Washington Black, which was long-listed for that year's Man Booker Prize.

Edugyan lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is married to novelist and poet Steven Price. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Thrilling.… Washington Black is a gripping tale, made vivid by Esi Edugyan’s gifts for language and character, and by the strength of her story.… The reader feels honoured to have kept Wash company on his journeying: and moved to see him embark upon his true beginning.
Erica Wagner - New Statesman (UK)

Washington Black is deserving of its place [on the Man Booker Prize longlist]. It’s a box of treats that manages to work history, science, and politics together under the guise of a high-stakes, steampunk adventure.… For all its cinematic capers—there are snowstorms, identical twins, and searches for lost fathers—Washington Black is a profoundly humane story about false idols, the fickleness of fortune, and whether a slave, once freed, can ever truly be free.
Johanna Thomas-Corr - Times (UK)

Washington Black is as harrowing a portrayal of slavery as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but it also becomes a globe-trotting, page-turning adventure story. A historical epic with much to say about the present-day world.
Guardian (UK)

(Starred review) Edugyan’s magnificent third novel again demonstrates her range and gifts.…  Edugyan mines the tensions between individual goodwill and systemic oppression.…. [In] supple, nuanced prose, Edugyan’s novel is both searing and beautiful.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) [A] remarkable coming-of-age story.… [Edugyan] delivers a vibrant, poignant tale of a man's search for selfhood in a world where some see him as less than whole. —Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL
Library Journal

(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

(Starred review) One of the most unconventional escapes from slavery ever chronicled.… Edugyan displays… ingenuity and resourcefulness …and the reader’s expectations are upended almost as often as her hero’s. A thoughtful, boldly imagined ripsnorter.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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 utter destruction [that] his act had now wrought upon my life." Discuss the kinds of scars the characters sustain in the novel, both visible and invisible.

5. Tanna tells Wash, "You are like an interruption in a novel, Wash. The agent that sets things off course. Like a hailstorm. Or a wedding." How does this metaphor manifest in literal and symbolic ways throughout Wash’s journeys?

6. Wash’s final meeting with Titch calls into question Titch’s motives for educating him. Wash accuses Titch of not really treating him as more than a slave. What is Wash’s benchmark for love and trust? Do Big Kit and Tanna fill the holes in his life that send him on an "erratic pursuit of an unanswerable truth [and] calm my sense of rootlessness—solve the chaos of my origins"?

7. Describe Wash and Tanna’s relationship. What qualities and life experiences do they share that draw them together? What differences create a gulf between them?

8. How is Wash sometimes manipulated by those around him? Who would you say is the worst offender? As one example, consider the bounty Erasmus puts on his head. Do you believe Titch’s remark that it was more a way to get back at Titch than a desire to find Wash?

9. What does it mean to be a "master" in this time period and for these characters? Recall Wash’s first impression of Philip as "the oddity of a body used for nothing but satisfying urges, bloated and ethereal as sea foam, as if it might break apart. He smelled of molasses and salted cod, and of the fine sweetness of mangoes in the hot season."

10. Part of what Titch first notices in Wash is an uncanny gift for drawing. How does the ability to observe and record run through the novel as a motif? What becomes, as Titch says, "worthy of observation"?

11. What draws Wash to the beauty of the octopus? What does it mean for him, a former slave, to capture it and other specimens for study and display, even with the motive of showing people that creatures they thought were "nightmarish …were in fact beautiful and nothing to fear"?

12. Titch’s confession about how he treated Philip as a boy reveals a new side of him to Wash. Does this revelation lead you to feel more or less compassion toward him? Does it complicate his relationship with Wash?

13. The novel is set between 1830 and 1836 and takes place on multiple continents. How are the larger global and political tremors shaking the world during this time felt through the characters? For example, Titch is described as an Abolitionist and often derided for it. How does this aspect of his worldview affect the way he behaves? What about your perceptions of him as a character?

14. Today in 2018, there are many groups suffering under the oppression of cruel governments and leaders. How might a narrative of their experiences compare to Wash’s? How are today’s oppressed being given or denied a voice?
(Questions issued by the publishers.)

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