2018, 432 p.
George Washington Black (‘Wash’), a slave child in the sugar plantations of Barbados, was triply marked. First: he was marked by his colour when he escaped to Nova Scotia on the run to avoid being framed for a murder he did not commit. Second: he was marked by the brand ‘F’ burned into his skin for the ironically-named ‘Faith’ plantation when it was taken over by a ruthless plantation-manager named Erasmus Wilde. And finally, he was marked by scarring from burns he received when a ballooning attempt went wrong.
So how did a young boy from the canefields of Barbados end up in places as diverse as the Arctic, Nova Scotia, England and Morocco? In the opening part of the book he, along with Big Kit – an older woman who has taken him under her wing- is brought up to ‘the house’. There he catches the eye of Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, the cruel plantation-manager’s brother, who judges him the right size to be ballast for a balloon-prototype he was constructing. Titch soon recognizes Wash’s sharp mind and drawing skill, and he engages him as a research assistant and valet, much to his brother’s disgust. It is while assisting with the ‘cloud-cutter’ balloon that Wash is injured in a gas explosion. Titch and Wash escape for America when Wash witnesses a death that they both know will be blamed on Wash. A generous reward is posted by Erasmus Wilde for his capture and return, and so Wash’s journey begins.
This book works on a big canvas, reminding me oddly of a Dickens novel in its scope. It crosses the globe, and it has big characters. For me, the most powerful part of the book was in 1830s Barbados, where the historian in me approved the author’s depiction of both slavery and the paltry nature of the Apprenticeship scheme that paraded as abolition. The narrative voice is restrained and educated, in a rather formal and antiquated way. Interestingly, there is no framing device for the narrative: you just take the story as given. It is at heart a quest novel, although shot through with yearning, injustice and beautiful description.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library