Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018, Washington Black is a story of friendship and betrayal, love and redemption

Whether you’re new to Washington Black or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published


On a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black, an 11-year-old field slave, is selected to be the personal servant of one of the new owners – the eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde. Titch is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor – and abolitionist. His idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following his own path to freedom.

Esi Edugyan relates the astonishing adventures of Washington Black, whose escape from the brutal cane plantations of Barbados was only the beginning of his extraordinary story.

Book cover of Washington Black by Esi Edugyan showing an air balloon carrying a flying ship.

The main characters

George Washington Black (Wash)

Wash is the novel’s narrator, born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Barbados, run by Erasmus Wilde. A boy with an innate curiosity, he captures the attention of Erasmus’s brother, who helps him escape the plantation on a Cloud-cutter. The two form an unlikely friendship, travelling the world together, yet despite his freedom, Wash struggles to escape the shackles of his past. 

Erasmus Wilde

Erasmus takes over the plantation when his uncle, Richard Black, dies. He is a brutal and aggressive man, responsible for committing many abhorrent acts on those he enslaves on Faith Plantation. ‘He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much,’ says Wash. Erasmus embodies the complexities of power and privilege, and even after Wash’s escape, sets a reward for his capture and sets a bounty hunter on his trail, meaning Wash can never truly be free.


Titch is a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist, and the younger brother of Erasmus. He takes an interest in Wash, becoming his mentor and teaching him to read and write. Titch plans to launch his Cloud-cutter, a vessel akin to a hot air balloon, and enlists the help of Wash to do so.

Big Kit

Big Kit is Wash’s mother, though she never reveals this fact to him. Despite this, she continues to act as a maternal figure, guiding and protecting him through the harsh realities of plantation life with her own strength and compassion.

About the author

Esi Edugyan is the internationally bestselling author of Washington Black, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Carnegie Medal for Literary Excellence, among others – and won the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

It was chosen by both the New York Times and Barack Obama as one of the best books of 2018. The epic Hulu/Disney TV series of Washington Black, starring Sterling K Brown and co-produced by Edugyan, is slated for release in Spring 2023.

Edugyan’s other novels include The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Half-Blood Blues, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011, as well as for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Governor General’s Literary Award. Half-Blood Blues won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Edugyan is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Victoria, where she now lives. She has held fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain, and Belgium, and judged prizes including the Giller Prize with Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Lethem. She was the Chair of the judging panel for the Booker Prize 2023.

Esi Edugyan

What the critics said

Arifa Akbar, the Guardian

‘Images of slave life are the most powerful of the book, and Big Kit is a formidable creation – a quietly seething figure rather like the strong, suffering women from Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, and again, one wishes that Edugyan had not decided to abandon her so early on.

But the story is broader and more ambitious in its scope. In between Washington’s apprenticeships, slavery is abolished but Washington finds himself stalked by its spectre in the form of a bounty hunter, years after abolition. The hunter, in some respects, is a manifestation of internalised enslavement. Washington is terrified by his early freedom – he is left by Titch when he is still a boy – and spends years trying to undo its internalised scars. Even before he is left by Titch, he feels an existential fear of freedom, its capacity to unfix his identity and “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.”’

Belinda McKeon, the Irish Times

‘For Washington Black, which after this opening section ranges over settings from Virginia to the Arctic Circle to Nova Scotia, from London to Amsterdam to Morocco, following Wash and his fortunes all the while, certainly sketches the shape of the epic, but with so much ground to cover, and so many twists of fate to navigate – and within a period of less than a decade – much of the emotional and indeed cultural weight and substance of the narrative ends up jettisoned.

Which is not to say that parts of Washington Black are not gripping; more than one of its parts reads as though it could have comprised the spine of a tighter, slower novel, one just as stocked with detail and atmosphere, but without the almost antic restlessness which pulls this narrative to too many places, both in terms of geography and plot, too frequently and flimsily.’

David Canfield, The Wall Street Journal

‘Washington Black is a classic Bildungsroman in many ways, albeit one that subverts or transcends the genre’s tropes at critical junctures. This character portrait builds on slave narratives (12 Years a Slave) and novels (Beloved, and more recently Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad) that have explored the limits of freedom. Wash is spared the fate of those he grew up with; his talent, nurtured by a white scientist and abolition advocate who goes by Titch, sends him across the globe. His journey is mythic in scope, strange and unpredictable, and Washington Black derives its thematic and emotional force from these riveting, swashbuckling adventures.’

Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

‘These deep dives into the turmoil of Wash’s soul are bracing but brief, quickly abandoned for the next fantastical plot turn. Ms. Edugyan is such a fluent, intelligent, natural writer that there’s little doubt she could succeed producing popular page-turners. But I’d miss the texture and emotional intensity she sometimes reaches here (and which were on fuller display in her gritty Nazi-era novel Half-Blood Blues). The story’s ambiguous conclusion suggests her uncertainty about which road to take. Wash has jeopardized everything to reunite with Titch, and a powerful confrontation about their shared history seems promised—and then isn’t delivered. The abrupt, unresolved ending leaves Wash, like the reader, hanging in midair.’

Maureen Corrigan, NPR

‘Washington Black is an unconventional and often touching novel about the search for transcendence above categories. As she tries to do for her hero, Wash, Edugyan clearly aims to carry her readers up, up and away.’

What the author said

‘I set out to write a novel about the Tichborne case, of all things, one of the longest-running criminal trials in British history. I wanted it told from the perspective of an ex-slave who had been a servant at the Tichborne estate, and who later acted as the defense’s main witness. But almost from the first, the story began to stray, the characters took on their own realities and dimensions. I understand now that it was the voice of its narrator that interested me, the complicated position he found himself in, racially, socially, intellectually. This is what I took from that initial idea. And out of this grew a story about a boy of sensitivity and intelligence, seeking his foothold in a world where there can be no real belonging for him. Looking back at my previous novels, I see now how they are both preoccupied with aftermaths, with the reconstructing of lives after great suffering. Washington Black, as a post-slavery narrative, is no different. But it became what it is only very gradually, and on its own terms.’

Read the full interview on

Esi Edugyan 2011

Questions and discussion points

Washington Black is the story of a boy, ‘Wash’, born on a plantation during the last days of slavery in Barbados. Unusually, Esi Edugyan chooses to journey beyond the standard boundaries of historical fiction while detailing his life amid the atrocities of the slave trade, blending adventure, travelogue, magical realism and the fantastical. Did the author’s choice to transcend genre boundaries, while asking readers to suspend disbelief, enhance or detract from the very real horrors depicted in the novel?

Though they were separated at birth, Big Kit is Wash’s mother. She never reveals this secret, yet continues to act as much of a maternal figure as she can within the confines of plantation life. Why do you think this is so? 

‘“I would not have this conversation now, in front of the help.”“They are not the help, Titch. They are the furniture.”’ How does this exchange between Titch and Erasmus regarding the treatment and consideration of enslaved people highlight their dehumanisation and oppression?

Big Kit gives Wash a nail as protection when Titch invites him to stay at his house. Wash holds it ‘like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed.’ Discuss the symbolism of the nail – how did it reflect Wash’s resistance, and also the broader power dynamics on the plantation?

Titch, a wealthy white man, saves Wash from his life as a slave, helping him escape the plantation. In what ways does Washington Black challenge traditional narratives of the white saviour trope, and how do the characters’ actions subvert or reinforce this?

At one point in the novel, Wash captures an octopus to house in an aquarium, a place ‘where people could come to view creatures they believed nightmarish, to understand these animals were in fact beautiful and nothing to fear’. What parallels could you draw between Wash and the octopus, considering his own experiences of displacement? 

When Wash travels with Titch in the Cloud-cutter, he experiences many events for the first time. ‘As the light shifted in the sky, so too did the snow around us deepen, find new hues, the way an ocean is never blue but some constantly changing color.’ Discuss how Edugyan’s prose throughout builds and creates these formative experiences, both for Wash and the reader.

Though Wash escapes the plantation, going on to travel the world, he struggles to feel truly free. He is burdened with the fear of being caught, enslaved, and sent back to Barbados. Discuss whether Wash can ever truly experience emotional freedom, and how the author explores the theme of liberation amidst adversity.

At one point Wash refers to himself as ‘a boy without an identity, a walking shadow’. Edugyan depicts a range of versions of Wash, throughout his journey from captivity as a child, to a free natural scientist. How does Wash’s quest for home, and family, reflect the universalities of belonging and identity?

Towards the end of the novel, Wash tells Titch ‘I was nothing to you. You never saw me as equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men’. Do you believe this true of Titch? Could he ever have viewed Wash as an equal? 

Resources and further reading

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