Washington Black is a slave born on a Barbados plantation who thinks he and his surrogate mother Big Kit are going to spend their entire lives as slaves before dying and waking up in her native Dahomey. Instead, when his master’s brother arrives for a long visit, Wash’s life is irrevocably changed.
That brother, Christopher Wilde, known to the world as Titch, is a scientist and an adventurer who selects Wash personally to be his attendant. That isn’t all Titch has in made. What he really needs is an assistant to help him conduct his experiments in aeronautics. Titch is building an airship and the slight, slim Wash won’t take up too much room. To make him a better assistant, Titch teaches Wash to read and write, and do math. Wash also displays an apparently innate ability to draw, intriguing Titch with his ability to render sea creatures and plant life with unerring accuracy.
After some unforeseen complications, Titch, who is actually a believer in abolition, winds up essentially kidnapping Wash in order to save his life. The two take off in the so-called Cloud Cutter. Although that journey is an unmitigated disaster, it kicks off a trek nearly to all corners of the globe. Titch and Wash are on the run from Titch’s vengeful brother, and on a quest to find Titch’s father, a scientist himself. Rumors of the elder Wilde’s demise are swirling, and Titch can’t rest until he finds out if his father is alive or dead. Uncertain of his status and with nowhere else to go, Wash sticks by Titch’s side as the unlikely duo head north into the Arctic Circle.
And then… not much. While the novel nicely builds momentum throughout the first half, it all comes crashing down around the halfway point as the action slows to a crawl. What had been a lively and entertaining story of like on the road for an unlikely pair, somewhat in the style of Huckleberry Finn and The Good Lord Bird, instead becomes a turgid, meandering look into Wash’s inner turmoil, largely spurred on by a love interest who can’t understand the relationship he has with Titch.
It’s hard to understand what this novel even wants to be. It has all the hallmarks of a sort of literary comedy, but it is really never funny except in the abstract way that an unlikely situation can be funny. If it is meant as some sort of critique of those sorts of novels, it does not make it’s criticism apparent. Instead, as the novel moves from a series of unlikely events to a slow, meditative look into Wash’s thoughts, the reader’s interest level dries up completely.