Set in the 1830s, this novel, shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, covers about eight years in the life of its narrator, George Washington Black (Wash).
Wash was born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados. When he is 11, he is rescued from the brutality of field work when chosen by Christopher Wilde (Titch), a naturalist and inventor and the brother of the plantation owner, to be his manservant and to assist him in his scientific endeavours. Wash’s intelligence and his aptitude for drawing pique Titch’s interest so he nurtures his talent and introduces him to the wonders of the natural world. The death of a man leaves Wash with a bounty on his head so Titch and Wash flee the island. This is the beginning of Wash’s travels as he eventually finds himself in far-flung locales as he tries to make his way in a world, “trying my best . . . to be my own free man” (231).
In some ways this is an adventure tale. Wash travels the world: Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco. He gets to fly in a hydrogen balloon, sail the sea and dive into its depths, and see the high Arctic and the desert. It is also a coming-of-age story showing Wash’s psychological growth from youth to adulthood. Most importantly, it asks the question, What is true freedom?
As a child, Wash asks his surrogate mother, “’What it like, Kit? Free?’” She tells him, “’When you free, you can do anything. . . . You go wherever it is you wanting. You wake up any time you wanting. When you free . . . someone ask you a question, you ain’t got to answer. You ain’t got to finish no job you don’t want to finish’” (9). As a slave, Wash has no freedom; his owner even takes measures to ensure that his slaves aren’t free to choose death by suicide. So Wash dreams of freedom, though Titch warns him, “’Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people’” (154).
When Wash escapes the plantation and Titch offers him freedom in Upper Canada, Wash admits, “’I was terrified to my very core, and . . . the idea of embarking on a perilous journey without Titch filled me with a panic so savage it felt as if I were being asked to perform some brutal act upon myself, to sever my own throat” (182). This reaction reveals that Wash remains a slave; he knows no life but being the property of someone else, though it upsets him when Titch, to avoid confrontation, tells someone, “’Indeed, the boy is my property’” (140). In a telling comment, Titch laments, “’You will never leave me, Wash . . . Even when I am gone. That is what breaks my heart’” (216).
Eventually, Wash must live on his own. Once he is forced “to leave behind Titch’s coddled world,” he discovers he will never be free of “the brutality of white men. To be called nigger and kicked at in disgust like a wharf rat” (231). Though he is technically a free man in Nova Scotia, he hides from a bounty hunter he fears is looking for him. Though he becomes an accomplished illustrator and a pioneering zoologist, he cannot get the recognition he has earned: “in the end my name would be nowhere” (385). At one point, Wash makes a conclusion that his time with Titch “had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind, I could cast off all violence, outrun a vicious death. I had even begun thinking I’d been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth’s bounty, and to invent; I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order. How wrong-headed it had all been. I was a black boy, only – I had no future before me, and little grace or mercy behind me. I was nothing, I would die nothing” (165).
Just as Wash always carries physical scars of his slavery, he can never be truly free of the psychological trauma of his enslavement. For example, he has difficulty trusting people; whenever he meets someone, he remains suspicious: “Despite his general mildness, I feared him, of course” (80) and “no part of me did trust him” (177) and “But it is also true that there was something in him I did not fully trust” (234). After he lives without Titch in his life, he feels he has no identity because he had one only in relation to Titch: “I became a boy without an identity, a walking shadow” (230). His sense of wonder at the natural world and his sketching of it cover his fear and loneliness because he remains a lost soul with a “sense of rootlessness” (400).
Of course, the concept of freedom is examined through other characters as well. Does Titch’s father stay in the Arctic to be free of familial ties? Titch is an abolitionist who believes “Slavery is a moral stain” which “will keep white men from their heaven” (105), but in order to do his research and create his inventions, he requires access to money made by the sugar cane plantation where slaves labour and are inhumanely treated so he can never be truly free of family duties. Though Titch has more personal freedom than his family’s slaves, feelings of guilt haunt him, and he is like Wash who cannot be free of his past. Wash recognizes that “wounds had arrested [Titch] in boyhood” (416) and because of Titch’s background, Wash even speculates that perhaps for Titch “any deep acceptance of equality was impossible” (322).
The cover of my copy has a sketch of an octopus which proves to be a symbol in the novel. On a diving expedition, Wash finds an octopus that “swam directly into my hands” (274) and he wishes to keep it alive and protect it. The octopus is, of course, an exotic creature, and Wash sees himself as an oddity: “a creature . . . a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows” (230-231). When taken captive, the octopus becomes ill in her tank; “I looked at the octopus, and I saw not the miraculous animal but my own slow, relentless extinction” (337-338).
There are some elements in the novel that irritated me. For instance, there are quite a few coincidences where people appear almost magically. Wash’s narration also bothered me: though he is obviously intelligent, he is an uneducated boy born into slavery who struggles with learning to read, yet he has such an extensive vocabulary?
Though not perfect, this is a book I can see myself re-reading. It has a depth that invites a second look.