'Washington Black' recounts a slave's flight to freedom

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George Washington Black is an 11-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation. Wash, as he is called by the other slaves, has no knowledge of who his parents are and is brought up by Big Kit, a huge, fierce woman believed to be a witch. She spins him fantastic tales of Dahomey, the village where she lived in Africa before being captured and shipped to Barbados.

When the plantation owner dies, his son, Erasmus Wilde, arrives to take over the plantation. The misery of the slaves is deepened as the new master wields his cruel authority.

One night, Big Kit and Wash are summoned to the main house to serve dinner to Erasmus and his brother Christopher, recently arrived from England. Christopher — nicknamed Titch due to his small frame — is a scientist and explorer. He is also an abolitionist and has come to Barbados to document the savagery of plantation life for a report to be presented to parliament.

Titch takes an interest in Wash and "borrows" him from his brother. Titch introduces Wash to the wondrous world of nature and flying machines, planets and stars, and microscopic organisms. They develop a friendship and respect for one another that seems to bridge the gulf of their different circumstances.

When Wash witnesses the suicide of Titch's Uncle Philip, he is blamed for Philip's murder. With a bounty on Wash's head, Titch and Wash flee Barbados in Titch's experimental flying machine. What follows is a long and desperate journey, as Wash is pursued by the notorious slave catcher, John Willard.

"Washington Black" is a story of love and loss, of aspiration and failure. It explores themes of friendship, trust and betrayal. In examining the impact of the choices we make on the lives of others, Edugyan asks us to think deeply about what it takes to live a life of dignity and meaning, and what it means to be free.

Esi Edugyan won this year's Giller Prize for Washington Black. Her 2011 novel, Half-Blood Blues, also won the Giller Prize and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Born and raised in Calgary, Edugyan lives with her husband and two children in Victoria, British Columbia.

Phil Lewis is co-owner of The Bennington Bookshop. "Washington Black" is available at The Bennington Bookshop, or can be purchased online here: https://www.benningtonbookshop.com/book/9780525521426

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