Comments from the Judging Panel
There is a kind of nineteenth-century novel of adventure that no one really writes any longer – think Jules Verne or H. Rider Haggard – in which intrepid Europeans sail off in hot air balloons to exotic locations, largely because we know what lies behind their parables of colonisation. Washington Black takes that genre and turns it on its head, by making its protagonist an eleven-year-old African-American field slave, for whom freedom from the canefields of Barbados takes him to the Canadian Arctic, the Moroccan desert, and, perhaps most exotically of all, London. This is the adventure novel with all of its enchantments reimagined for our times.
About the Novel
Eleven-year-old George Washington Black – or Wash – a field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is initially terrified when he is chosen as the manservant of his master’s brother. To his surprise, however, 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, they must abandon everything and flee together. Over the course of their travels, what brings Wash and Christopher together will tear them apart, propelling Wash ever farther across the globe in search of his true self.
About the Author
Esi Edugyan is author of the novels The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Half-Blood Blues, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize and the Orange Prize. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
Widely acclaimed, Edugyan’s novel took the difficult backdrop of slavery to create a story of hope and humanity. Fascinating in the telling, her prose is richly nuanced and memorable in following Washington Black and his adventures in science and freedom seeking. Contemporary themes of oppression and belonging make it an essential and authentic reading experience. Ottawa Public Library, Canada
Under the guise of a fantastic historical adventure, Washington Black is a tale that really looks at the erasure of black voices be it accidental or purposeful. This is a wonderful, vivid novel with a brilliant hero at its centre, who you feel for, hope for and who you wish you could change the circumstances that surround him. Liverpool Library Service, England
When we meet Washington Black he is vulnerable and enslaved 11 year old living on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Fleeing that life in a hot-air balloon, he embarks on a wonderfully strange life of adventure and scientific exploration. But this is not just an adventure novel, though it has lots of magical tales to tell, nor is it just a harrowing depiction of the cruelty of slavery, though it tells that story too. Rather it’s the story of how, equipped with intelligence, curiosity, and artistry, Washington Black was able to soar above his circumstances and shape his own life. An unforgettable work of empathy and imagination. Toronto Public Library, Canada
Victoria, B.C. based novelist, Esi Edugyan writes a compelling novel of historical fiction. Washington Black follows the saga of an 11 year old child into slavery on a Barbados plantation and his worldly journey in search of his identity. Edugyan carefully carves out a space where victims of brutality are shown to be fully developed and humane individuals despite the cruelty they have experienced. She also speaks to the truthful and unfortunate silencing of and control over black scientists. The novel won Edugyan her second Scotiabank Giller Prize and it was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and the 2018 Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize. Vancouver Public Library, Canada
Washington Black is an 11 year old field slave who knows no other life than the Barbados sugar plantation where he was born. When his master’s eccentric brother chooses him to be his man servant, Wash is terrified of the cruelties he is certain await him. But Christopher Wilds, or “Titch”, an inventor and abolitionist initiates Wash into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky; where two people, separated by an impossible divide, might begin to see each other as human. A well written historical adventure that explores human anguish and the ability to find kindness from an unlikely friendship. Jamaica Library Service, Jamaica
Washington Black is a sweeping 19th century adventure tale with a modern twist. What does it mean to be captive? What is true freedom? These are some of the questions posed in this epic story of re-invention and redemption. New Hampshire State Library, USA
A literary yarn with likable yet flawed characters and unpredictable situations. Look for the author’s unique storytelling blending topics of race, science, and friendship in a quasi-road novel. Kansas City Public Library, USA
A young slave from Barbados has an unexpected chance for freedom and adventure in this historical novel about slavery, adventure, dashed dreams, and unexpected possibilities, all portrayed in language that is lush, evocative and revelatory. Edugyan has the ability to meld plot, characterization and language to perfection. Los Angeles Public Library, USA
The story is memorable for its voice and its evocation of the horrors of slavery. And, it is excellent in its construction of character. Wash and his mentor Titch are so alive as to be unforgettable, as is the story of their tangled relationship. Edugyan examines the strains between individual goodwill and systemic oppression, belonging and exclusion, wonder and terror, and human and natural order. Milwaukee Public Library, USA
George Washington “Wash” Black is an eleven-year old field slave from a brutal sugar plantation in Barbados serendipitously chosen as a manservant by Titch, his master’s eccentric brother. A self-proclaimed man of science and ingenuity, Titch quickly realizes young Walsh as artistically inclined and together they prepare for travel abroad until a man is murdered and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head. What began as adventure results in Titch and Walsh taking abrupt flight, exploring various landscapes of land and sea, autonomy and freedom. Washington Black is a hybrid of classic runaway slave narrative and swashbuckling bildungsroman. Esi Edugyan boldly explores the cruelties of tethered awakening, exploitation, betrayal and what it means when the state of being “potentially estranged” is directly due to being owned by someone other than yourself. Richmond Public Library, USA