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Escaping Slavery in a Hot-Air Balloon

The novel has many elements of a 19th-century adventure story. Washington, when he needs to, makes his tale both gripping and credible. He writes as though the idea of escaping from the plantation by flying machine (as he and Christopher do), landing on a ship that rescues them (as they also do) and making their way to Canada, where they find Christopher’s father, whom they had believed dead (as they do as well), is somehow part of how the world works.

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There are moments when the writing soars, when Washington’s experience of the natural world is rendered in a prose that openly, almost exultantly, strives to evoke beauty, such as when he goes diving: “How luminous the world was, in the shallows. I could see all the golden light of the dying morning, I could see the debris in it stirring, coming alive. Blue, purple, gold cilia turned in the watery yellow shafts of light slicing down. In the gilded blur I caught the flashing eyes of shrimp, alien and sinewy.”

Edugyan is careful, nonetheless, that her flying machine of a novel not fly too freely into the upper air. She manages this by confining Washington’s version of events, when necessary, to close and precise description. His mind works plausibly. His prose can be vivid, sometimes fervid, but it can also be measured. In Canada, he knows that, as an escaped slave, there is a price on his head. Despite the wonders he experiences, he never loses a foreboding that is rooted and fully real.

Just as Christopher, earlier in the book, was his enabler for escaping the plantation, in Canada Washington encounters Tanna Goff and her naturalist father, who become not only his protectors but open up the study of the natural world for him. As he was to Christopher, Washington becomes a sort of colleague and collaborator to them. Soon he is writing with ease about specimens, about carbonic acid, oxygen and photosynthesis.

Tentatively, a sort of romance begins between him and Tanna, a relationship that is handled with tenderness and reticence. With the Goffs, Washington makes his way to London, there to work on creating a new museum to display living creatures from the deep. No matter where he goes, he is both ready for the world and displaced. He is wounded by the loss of Big Kit and sets out now to refind Christopher Wilde, from whom he has become separated. He has won freedom but not from the experiences he has been through. The very quality and range of his awareness demand that the world should trouble him.

Several times in the novel, the idea of the characters having doubles, or secret sharers haunting their lives, is invoked. Washington’s complexity — his innocence and knowingness, his sense of wonder at the nature of things — also comes to us as a sort of disguise, a doubling, a performance, a way of handling his loneliness, suggesting many layers of self-creation to cover the fear and the cruelty evoked so memorably in the opening pages.

What Edugyan has done in “Washington Black” is to complicate the historical narrative by focusing on one unique and self-led figure. Washington Black’s presence in these pages is fierce and unsettling. His urge to live all he can is matched by his eloquence, his restless mind striving beyond its own confines in tones that are sometimes overstretched, if brilliant, and then filled with calm subtlety and nuance.

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