May 11, 2021rab1953 rated this title 4.5 out of 5 stars
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.