Washington Black

Washington Black

A Novel

eBook - 2018
Average Rating:
Rate this:
One of the TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR New York Times Book Review
One of the Best Books of the Year
The Boston Globe The Washington Post ● Time ● Entertainment Weekly ● San Francisco Chronicle ● Financial Times ● Minneapolis Star Tribune ● NPR ● The Economist ● Bustle ● The Dallas Morning News ● Slate ● Kirkus Reviews

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. Spanning the Caribbean to the frozen Far North, London to Morocco, Washington Black is a story of self-invention and betrayal, of love and redemption, and of a world destroyed and made whole again.
Published: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
May 29, 2021

I loved this book, what an adventure! Did not want this book to end. I also fell in love with the characters, most of them anyhow!

May 11, 2021

This book explores the complications of freedom in a hostile world. Freedom from slavery and oppression are obviously highly desirable, and Edugyan shows how destructive plantation slavery was. The everyday fear of brutal punishment for not working well enough or for talking back undermines the slaves’ consciousness and sense of identity. They are treated as objects and don’t even know their parents. When Washington is brought into the owner’s house, he spends his first days fearful because he doesn’t know what is expected of him or how to avoid punishment.
But Edugyan’s characters find that escaping from slavery brings complications of a different kind. First is the fear of being re-taken. The escaped slave, Washington, and his white liberator, Titch, imaginatively escape to Virginia, a slave-owning state where they have to pretend to be master and servant to avoid bounty hunters. They find a very sketchy escape route to Canada, but Washington chooses to sail north with Titch to find Titch’s eccentric father in the Arctic. He prefers the risk of staying with his friend over the potential of an unknown freedom in Canada. Eventually he ends up in Nova Scotia, where he finds the Black community surviving in poverty almost as marginal as on the slave farm. When he is able to return to his interest in art and science, he comes to realize that Titch and his patron in science don’t really appreciate him for himself, but more as an instrument who can advance their own projects. He even comes to question his relationship to the woman he loves when she allows her father to take credit for his work. Finally, he finds, he has to go out into a stormy world entirely on his own in order to be free of the limitations of friendship and emotion.
This is a difficult path, and Edugyan does not intend to say that the challenges of freedom are in any way parallel to the horrific conditions of slavery that she depicts. Only when Washington is free is he able to express himself and his own interests. But freedom does not rid the world of racism, poverty and exploitation. In fact, when the slaves are freed on the British island of Barbados, they don’t have any economic options except to continue working on the plantations in near-starvation conditions.
In a kind of reversal, Edugyan shows the complications of slave ownership as well. Titch and his brother hate managing a slave plantation. They don’t seem to be brutal in themselves, but they think that brutality is the only tool they have to manage their slaves. Titch says that he would abandon the plantation, but his brother says that they have no choice because without the plantation their family would be reduced to poverty. And they are right – without fear, the slaves would revolt or simply walk away, and the family would lose its wealth and privilege. As Hegel wrote, the slaveowner becomes a slave to the institution, and without revolution neither slave nor owner can be free.
It’s interesting that Washington’s interest is in the science of marine biology. The scene describing his experience with an early diving suit is amazing, especially when he has a kind of underwater dance with an octopus. The octopus is able to change colour to match its environment, but Washington has to go to extraordinary and dangerous lengths to survive in a foreign environment. It’s a memorable image, and an apt metaphor for Washington’s survival in the world. Washington has to create a new state of being, a world of creativity and freedom, but this will be a difficult and painful task.

Apr 30, 2021

I thought that this book was beautifully written but slightly far fetched.

The fact that this young man was able to go from Barbados to Chesapeake to the Arctic and Nova Scotia as well as Europe and Morocco in 1835 made me highly skeptical.

Washington Black's story intrigued me and kept me invested. How was he able to do all those things? Care for those people? I wanted to know about his emotional well being.

So I became sucked into his story, learning everything as he did and needing to know more.

If you want a good emotionally giving historical novel, this would be one for you.
I can understand why it won the awards that it did.

Barrie_Teen_Lists Mar 24, 2021

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan is a story of a slave named George Washington “Wash” Black on a Caribbean plantation in the early 1800’s, a period of increasing enlightenment among individuals and the great inventions of the Industrial Revolution. The plantation is transferred to a despicable, white man named Arasmus Wilde, along with his eccentric, curious brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde. Titch is accompanying his brother for the opportunity to test his invention, the ‘Cloud-Cutter’, an improved hot-air balloon, and he requires someone to help him finalize the plans of his machine, so he asks Wash to help him finish. As they finish building the machine, Wash is placed into a situation where he is blamed for the suicide of a close relative to the Wilde brothers, Phillip Wilde, so Wash, and Titch must escape with the newly built Cloud-Cutter to save Wash from a certain death. Wash travels across the world including the Canadian Arctic, Nova Scotia, and England to escape the bounty that is placed on his head. Throughout the book, Wash finds love with a woman named Tanna who is the first to truly accept Wash as a person and respects him as one and learns about the deeply distressing things that Titch has done, despite appearing like an enlightened, altruistic person.

What I found interesting about Washington Black is that it is a story about compassion and companionship as Titch learns to appreciate Wash as less of a slave and more as a human being as they get to know each other throughout their journey. It is also a story of betrayal as Titch leaves Wash when in the Arctic following an event with Titch’s father that left Titch frustrated with Wash for destroying his relationship with his family. Wash must learn how to deal with these mixed messages of acceptance as well as the lies and deceit he was told to be so he can finally be at peace as to why Titch left him. You grow to adore and respect certain characters while despising others because the character development in this book is excellent and those opinions of the characters can change throughout the story, which is what makes this book great. Essentially, Washington Black is a coming of age story of a former slave who must now learn how to learn how to live by himself in a society that do not look to keenly towards his race of people. I loved how the book was beautifully written with many paragraphs of descriptive imagery of the environment, like marine life such as the octopus with their vibrant colours and the way they interact with the world around them, and the various paintings of the environment that Wash paints that are covered in great detail.

If you are interested in the time period of great innovation and social changes of the Industrial Revolution, as well if you are interested how minorities were treated by society during this time period, then this is a must-read that will not disappoint. It is very easy to read and understand the messages found within the book, making it a better book for anyone who does not read as much or takes longer to read. I believed this is a very good book for young adults and older who are interested in the history of slavery.

Feb 01, 2021

Great book, much better than his other one The Second life of..."

jkellerhand Jan 05, 2021

Maria recommended

Dec 16, 2020

Even though this was a page turner there was something not quite right about it. Washington finds a troubling freedom, has unbelievable adventures, is haunted by abandonment, falls in love, enjoys painting and sketching, is fascinated with the sea, is involved in creative invention; but there's a bit too much description both of the environment and of feelings/perception. Just kind of a sad feel to the story. The actual hard cover book is easy to hold and the large print nice. Decide for yourself, you may not be able to put it down once you begin.

Dec 11, 2020

One of my favorites I've read this year. Edugyan used a lot of 19th C vernacular - some readers may find difficult yet I appreciated the effort and style; helped maintain setting and tone of the story. Loved her descriptions of characters' personalities, physical attributes, and dialogue.

One can read this as a simple historic novel, but it's more than that. Beginning on a Barbados' plantation, Washington's story is a story of race. So if you cannot handle that, this is not for you. The discussions of science and fanciful instruments blend the genre just a bit and left me wondering where the story was headed.

So in parts III and IV Wash catches and observes an octopus. Did anyone else read that as a metaphor for Wash? Intelligent creature which can camouflage itself for protection, defense, attractiveness, etc. I felt this symbolized his youth once Titch nurtured his artistic talent. Wash used his talents to gain education and escape from Titch. But as he matures and meets Tana the question is posed that maybe Titch had exploited Wash. Either way, Wash 'adapts' to his environment and those around him in his art, his labors, his scientific observations in order to allow people to see value in him. As a black man, former slave, with facial scars, Wash is constantly guarded and feels he must prove his worth to others.

I will keep an eye out for what Esi Edugyan writes in the future - lovely writing style and very creative.

Nov 17, 2020

A wonderful book, very well written. I loved it from cover to cover.

Sep 21, 2020

I liked this book. The author writes well. The story could've been a bit more exciting as you were lead to believe that the boy would be taken on many more adventures in the balloon. But I liked it.

View All Comments


Add a Quote
Aug 23, 2020

I had been warned by Mister Ibel that snow was white, and cold. But it was not white: it held all the colours of the spectrum. It was blue and green and yellow and teal; there were delicate pink tintings in some of the cliffs as we passed. As the light shifted in the sky, so too did the snow around us deepen, find new hues, the way an ocean is never blue but some constantly changing colour.

Aug 23, 2020

Though a child, I did not picture a monster – he was no creature all teeth, all vicious blue eyes behind mangled wire spectacles; his voice was not slow and reptilian, his hands not huge black claws. I knew the nature of evil; I knew its benign, easy face. He would be a man, simply.

Aug 23, 2020

It was a wonder to me that a world of cruelty and hardship existed, even now, only some miles away. How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon . . .

Aug 23, 2020

She seemed neither preoccupied nor uneasy; her silence was marked by a held-in rage that I have only now, several years later, come to understand as the suppression of will. For she was a ferociously intelligent woman, and it strained her to have to conceal it. She sometimes spoke as no slave should speak; the scar on her face was some testament to this.

Sep 12, 2018

I carried that nail like a shard of darkness in my fist. I carried it like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed. I carried it like a key.


Add a Summary
Apr 06, 2019

Too brutal, too disturbing - not bedtime reading.

Sep 12, 2018

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brother arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.


Add Notices
Aug 23, 2020

Violence: violence and suicide


Add Age Suitability

There are no ages for this title yet.

Explore Further


Subject Headings


Find it at DBRL

To Top