This is a powerful read with a lot in it. George Washington Black is born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados owned by the ruthless and cruel Englishman, Erasmus Wilde. Never knowing his parents, young Wash, as he is known, lives a life where brutality and hardship are daily struggles for survival.
By the age of eleven, another white gentleman known as Titch comes into his life. Titch is Erasmus’s younger brother and is a scientist who builds a prototype of a hot air balloon on a hill in the plantation. It’s the 1880s and his invention is sneered at by his older brother. Titch sees Wash and plucks him from the fields to be his assistant because he is the right weight for his contraption. Titch is also an abolitionist and objects to slavery and takes on Wash’s education and discovers his talent for drawing. Wash quickly assimilates into a new way of life and grows attached to Titch but he is never free of fear as Titch takes him on an adventure with dire consequences.
This is a very well researched historical fiction giving an intimate examination of slavery. But it’s more than that; it’s full of adventure, suspense, love, and history. It’s set in an era where science and invention are challenging the norms of society. The writing is wonderful from the point of view of Wash in the first person. His observations are clear.
“A man who has belonged to another learns very quickly to observe a master’s eye; what I saw in this man’s terrified me. He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him very much. His name was Erasmus Wilde.”
We’re taken on a journey with Wash – loving him, fearing for him and caring, deeply. And even though that journey at times feels impossible and almost improbable to believe, it doesn’t matter because we care so much about what happens to Wash and dare to hope for a better life for him. Along the way, we become caught up with the science of the time, from hot air balloon inventions to the world’s first aquarium, the wilderness of Canada and arctic exploration. The dynamics of Titch’s dysfunctional family are played out with Wash stuck in the middle trying to belong and find love.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, it’s a wonderful story. From violence to beauty and hope, it’s fascinating and absorbing, so much so, I couldn’t put this page-turner down.