Washington Black is a powerful read, covering the nature of friendship, guilt and identity, loss, and compassion. It covers the life of a young boy who is constantly moving from one life to the next and how he grows and changes as a person. It has a fascinating premise, a strong complex protagonist in a complex world. This combined with a strong supporting cast and a feel of an adventure novel combined with a complex character study of a free black man in a world changing with the death of slavery but in which society and culture that still views him as unequal. This is a riveting book which I highly recommend.
Personally, I enjoyed the book, if you are a fan of historical fiction in general and adventure novels then you will probably enjoy this as well. However, what distinguishes this from other similar adventure novels I feel is the general theme of identity and the protagonist George Washington Black nicknamed as Wash.
Wash is not a typical plucky young adventurer, he is thoughtful and feels greatly for those around him and as such instead of being a blank slate of bravado with no identity other than moving the adventure on he becomes the master of his own story, relying on his talents and his compassion for others to push himself along to make his mark on the world. He struggles with his identity as a black man in a world that is still transitioning from the dying era of slavery (at least in the British empire) into a world where while technically free he is still subject to racism and prejudice and those who wish to harm him as a result of that. You can’t help root for him to succeed and I found him an extremely compelling protagonist.
Wash is not the only intriguing character in the book, there is a colourful cast of supporting character notably Titch the man who plucks wash from slavery and introduces him to a world of science and invention and encourages his talents and attempts to protect him from harm namely the slave master who owns him. There are others who particularly stand out but in lieu of spoilers I will not mention them, however each one is a complex fascinating character and they complement Wash well and you find yourself wondering what their story is as much as following the main character.
My only critique is some of the technical aspects, without going into spoilers, Wash manages to travel a fair distance on his own with what seems to be little or no effort. This for a black man in an era where slavery was still legal in half of the world and only just ending in the other half must have been difficult at best. In the story however it seems he travels with little effort. While only a small issue, it did pull me out of the story somewhat.
This is a great book, well written, well-paced and full of action and adventure and the sort of characters you can imagine running into. It makes you laugh, makes you sad, and makes you keep turning every page, what more could you ask for?