Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Wash by Margaret Wrinkle

Margaret Wrinkle, who has won awards for documentary about her racially divided home town, has written a novel about the beginnings of slavery in the early United States. Wash is the story of Wash, slave owned by Mr. Richardson. Richardson, a self-made man, is now a plantation owner in Tennessee on newly settled land.  Short of money he follows the advice of his partner and manager, Quinn who suggests they hire the physically exceptional ("fine" as Richardson terms him) Wash out as a stud. Wash is lent out to other plantations to mate with the women who appear to be of the right temperament and physical abilities in order to build a good bloodline.

As crude as this premise sounds, the book is much more. It is really the story of Wash, his mother, Mena, and his love, Pallas. Richardson spots Mena at a slave auction. She has been brought over from her native Africa. Pregnant, Mena was in training to be a shaman. She never finished the training but she has some skills that make her useful. Richardson feels compelled to purchase Mena, and when he finds out she is pregnant, he feels he's made a good deal. Richardson heads off to the Revolutionary War and send Mena to live with a friend, Thompson, on the coast of South Carolina. There she gives birth to Wash. Thompson's sons take over Mena and Wash on the death of their father, abusing them. Mena, has been teaching Wash the fine art of protecting himself psychologically.

Back at Richardson's Wash has grown up and Quinn comes up with the stud idea. Wash, having no choice in the matter goes along with the plan, while thinking there has to be something better. Then he sees Pallas who has come to nurse him after a beating. Pallas has her own demons and tries to stay away from Wash.

The story line weaves back and forth from the different perspectives of Wash, Richardson, Pallas and the other main characters. More than a slave tale, although the book does have some interesting information about early slave practices in the new United States, this book is about saving your humanity in the face of unrelenting degradation. I recommend this book.

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