Full confession, I did not want to read Washington Black. I like historical fiction but learned something about myself over the past few years – I find it difficult to read fiction that tells the stories of the worst things humans have done to one another in situations where that really happened. I have been trying to read The Tatooist of Auschwitz for about four months. I read a chapter, it breaks my heart and I pick up something else (sorry A, I’ll give it back eventually). It’s too close and I find that is often the case with stories told about slavery. I believe that these stories are incredibly important and that it’s important as a reader to be open to everything but they are so real that I find them hard to read. That was my thinking around Washington Black and admittedly, I was not really pleased to open it last year on Christmas morning.
I put it my bookshelf and considered it a few times as I read other books, as I just wasn’t sure. It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2018 so I knew it would be a great read but I was holding back. And then someone gave me a good push. My hair stylist and I talk about all sorts of things as one does when getting their hair styled. One of my favourite things to talk about, of course, is books, and she told me I had to read it. Gave me a bit of insight and one Sunday morning in March I cracked it open and dug in. And didn’t put it down all day.
Washington Black is beautifully written, almost enchanting, and the story was unlike any I’d ever read before. It tells the story of Washington Black, an eleven-year-old slave on a plantation in Barbados. I hadn’t ever read a story about slavery that didn’t take place in the American South so this was new territory for me. Washington is chosen to serve an eccentric Englishman who, along with his brother, has taken over the plantation. The man, Christopher Wilde, introduces Washington Black to a world he never dreamed of and is the man that helps him escape.
The story weaves from Barbados up through America and into the Arctic north. Washington settles in Canada for some time after he and Wilde are separated. Then he eventually makes his way to London. It’s a beautiful tale of the search for freedom, an unexpected ally, adventure and world travel. It was not at all what I expected, it was so much more and I’m so glad that I was both gifted it and told to read it by another reader I trust. If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage you to – it’s absolutely a story worth diving into, characters worth meeting and an adventure worth going on.