Wednesday, August 7, 2019

What did the book club think of Esi Edugyan's Washington Black? Warning, there are spoilers in this post.

Spoiler warning. There, I said it twice.

The first thing I’m going to note about our In-Store Lit Group discussion for Washington Black is that we had 21 attendees, which is our largest turnout for an event without a special guest (author or theater person). And on top of that, to my knowledge, everyone who attended finished the book. That certainly didn’t happen often.

Washington Black was a New York Times top ten-best book for 2018. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which Edugyan also received for novel number two, Half Blood Blues. It was noted on a recent podcast that the Giller Prize reward is ten times what the National Book Award is for fiction. But is that in Canadian dollars?

I will note that while many people loved it, some preferred the first part of the book set in Barbados, to the subsequent sections that involved the travel narrative. But it’s my feeling that this jump off, much like the Cloud-Cutter device pictured on the cover, sets the book apart. I’d also like to note that I am a big fan of the paperback jacket for this book – far superior than the hardcover treatment. I’m usually a grump about paperback changes, so let the record stand that this is not the case here.

Esi Edugyan (soft G, per an interview) didn’t mean to write Washington Black as a subversion of the Jules Verne narrative. It was an editor who pointed this out to her, per an interview with Moira Macdonald in the Seattle Times. But after some thought, she came to the conclusion that “that’s exactly the spirit in which it should be read.”

It’s also important to keep in mind when you have a couple people in your book club complaining that it was unbelievable. Unlike reading, for example, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, which are predicated on a speculative premise, Edugyan’s novel opens rather realistically and brutally. It's only later that you're asked to suspend disbelief. Could an amateur scientist on this remote plantation build a Cloud-Cutter of this nature?

But did you question Jules Verne when he wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Maybe you did, but then you’d have to have invited a time travel machine, and now who’s skirting reality? And on a related note, another attendee asked where they got all that money to travel. My answer? Not important.

As our sales rep Jason Gobble said (of our great event with Claire Lombardo on Tuesday), Washington Black is a rare book that appeals both to the critics and prize judges, and everyday readers looking for a plot-driven narrative. He didn’t quite say it like that – I should really carry around a recording device.

And now some spoiler plot points.

George Washington Black, or Wash for short, is raised on a Barbados plantation named Faith, ruled by a brutal master named Erasmus Wilde. He’s cared for by Big Kit, who nurtures him while still keeping a bit of distance. Into his life comes Christopher “Titch” Wilde, the master’s brother, who wants a slave to help him with his scientific experiment. When tragedy strikes on the island, Titch helps Wash escape, and so begin the adventures, to Virginia, Nova Scotia, London, and more, from the piercing cold to scorching heat.

After Titch and Wash make it to Canada, where Titch’s father is discovered (we thought he was dead!), Titch abandons Wash and leaves him to make a life in Nova Scotia. Wash is distraught but makes a living delivering packages for a local store. It turns out that Wash has great artistic talent and those skills lead to him falling in with naturalist G.M. Goff and his daughter Tanna. Goff has plans to build a fantastic aquarium called The Ocean House. But that doesn’t stop Wash’s dive to find Titch, which drives much of the narrative thrust of of the rest of the story.

And while Wash is on a quest, he’s also being chased. Because Erasmus Wilde, back at Faith, has put a price on his head as a runaway slave, and the bounty hunter is in the form of John Francis Willard, who will take him back dead or alive.

Despite the story being through Wash’s eyes, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that Titch doesn’t see Wash the way Wash sees Titch. Titch might well have been an abolitionist but this does not still allow him to see Wash beyond abstraction. The bias is still there. But Wash sees him as a father figure, much like Titch still searches for and seeks the approval of his father James. James has pretty much abandoned the family and though we don’t think he started the rumor that he was dead, he certainly wasn’t upset by it.

One of the other things I loved about the book was not just that Edugyan wrote a corrective to the Verne stories that put black and brown people in the background and in service positions, but that it also, as Edugyan noted in an interview with Sam Briger on Fresh Air, thought about black people in a different way regarding science. So many narratives have people of color being the subjects of experiments, and not the acting as the scientists themselves While Titch drives the creation of the Cloud-Cutter, it’s Wash whose innovation brings The Ocean House to life.

And as Lily noted, how interesting that a man chasing his freedom would spend so much time penning in sea creatures of the exhibit. But that is just one of the complications of Wash, who as Maureen Corrigan noted on Fresh Air, is focused upon “the search for transcendence above categories.”

A number of readers were bothered by the lack of a definitive ending. I have this open-ended ending discussion quite often and I think by avoiding closure, Edugyan has brought us out of a genre-influence novel of the past (the Dickensian ending) and back to the present. I'm not going to say exactly what that ending is, but the question is, did Wash achieve his own moment of transcendence

One last thing – I often note interesting connections between books I’m reading, but I hardly expected to find a link between Washington Black and Where the Crawdads Sing, but there is one. It’s two stories with non-traditional naturalist illustrators at their core.

If you've already picked up Half Blood Blues, Edugyan's first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, is also still in print.

Our next book we’re discussing is Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra on Monday, August 25, 7 pm. And then on Monday, October 14, we'll be reading The Overstory. We're experimenting with two sessions for that discussion, 2 pm and 7 pm.

Our Boswell-run book clubs page is updated through the end of the year. All the groups are reading some interesting selections. I’m hoping to attend the Books and Beer discussion of Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time on August 19 and we’ve got Layne Fargo coming for our November 25 Mystery Group discussion of Temper. They meet at 6, she’ll answer spoiler questions at 6:30, and then we’ll have a back-of-the-store traditional event at 7.

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