A literary reminder of slavery's evil
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 November 2018)

On the first page of Washington Black, the novel that won the $100,000 Giller Prize for Esi Edugyan this week, the reader is plunged into the horror and sadism of the American slave system. We meet an 11-year-old boy, sometimes called Wash, who will be the narrator of the whole story.

Wash was born into slavery and knows nothing of the world except what he can learn by listening to the people around him, including Big Kit, a motherly woman who teaches him the rules of the slave system. He's apparently motherless and fatherless, and without an identity. It's as if he has been dropped into a strange world from another planet. He has no past to provide perspective, but it turns out that he has intelligence, talent and a certain innocent kind of shrewdness.

He learns that there is a master, his master, the cruel Erasmus Wilde, owner of the Faith sugar plantation in Barbados and also owner of most of the people who live there. Wash will be beaten or killed if he fails to obey immediately the master or his senior slaves. He understands that he has no value in white eyes beyond the functions he's ordered to perform. The whites hand him around like a wheelbarrow to be borrowed and then returned.

Edugyan, obviously a writer of great imagination, gives Wash a totally convincing inner voice. We don't doubt that he's mastered enough vocabulary to express the truth of his changing situation. This counts, because Washington Black is a historical novel and an adventure tale. It needs a hero we will care about as we follow his adventures.

Wash is perfect. He's instantly lovable and astonishingly clever; no one can avoid caring about him. As the boy grows to a young man, he escapes from slavery, eludes a professional slave catcher, travels to the Arctic, lives in Nova Scotia, moves to London. Of course we sympathize with him. So much has happened to him, so much humiliation has been heaped upon him, that we yearn to see things go well for him.

He describes his life at one point: "Though I did not know it then, I had begun the months of my long desolation. I became a boy without identity, a walking shadow, a boy with a scientific turn of mind, running, always running from the dimmest of shadows." He knew that a notorious slave catcher, a bounty man, was after him.

We will likely remember the slavery section better than anything else in the novel. Edugyan's account of it and its endless cruelty before the American Civil War re-awakens the reader to one of the unforgettable crimes of history. But in the 21st century slavery is not by any means dead. In several countries, slaves are working in mines and factories, as captured prisoners yearning for freedom. Organizations around the world campaign against this ugly truth, but slavery nevertheless persists. A current biography of the great Frederick Douglass -- an escaped slave who became the world's most articulate abolitionist -- is receiving excited reviews, perhaps from critics who know that someone of Douglass's ability is sorely needed at this moment.

Consider this: "By donating to Free the Slaves, you liberate people from bondage, and you put traffickers in jail. Our front-line activists guide police to farms, factories and mines on raids that liberate the enslaved and arrest slaveholders."

That's from an appeal for donations to Free the Slaves. It was published on Nov. 20, 2018.

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