In the first third of the 19th century, slavery would soon be a thing of the past on the island of Barbados, but before it ended, George Washington Black’s life would be forever changed there. Born a slave, he was 11 years old when the book begins. Wash had never known freedom or a parent, although on the sugar plantation, Faith, he has a mother figure named Big Kit. She cares for him and tries to protect him but sometimes is cruel herself. When the owner of the plantation dies, his eldest nephew, Erasmus Wilde takes over the running of the place. He is cruel, violent and vicious. He enforces his power with malevolence, treating the slaves inhumanely, and without mercy. They are merely property for him to do with as he wishes, as they are to most slave owners. However, the descriptions of his brutality are contemptible. When Erasmus’s younger brother Titch (Christopher) arrives, Kit and Wash are waiting table for them at the manor house. Titch seems to have a softer and gentler nature. He is developing a flying machine that he calls a Cloud-cutter.. He wants Wash to assist him because of his small size which would be perfect as a ballast.
Titch prevails upon Erasmus to give him Wash and others to help him with his flying machine. When he realizes that Wash has the mind of a prodigy, he begins to teach him manners and how to read. He teaches him about marine specimens and about his Cloud-cutter. His artistic talent is discovered when Titch discovers Wash drawing in secret. He encourages him to continue to draw for him. There is magic in his drawings which possess a special kind of light and lightness. Soon the two are working together, although it takes time for Wash to overcome his fear of being abused by his masters. He lives with Titch in his quarters, and he sleeps in a bed for the first time in his life. Slowly, he becomes devoted to Titch and begins to trust him, although it seems never quite completely. When during an experiment with the Cloud-cutter, distracted by Titch’s cousin Philip, Wash is severely burned in an unexpected explosion, Titch nurses him back to health, but his face is brutally disfigured.
What seems like a short time later, Wash is with Philip once again, and he witnesses his death. He is helpless to prevent it, but as the last person to be with him, and as a black slave, he will be punished for the suicidal act.. Titch realizes that Wash is in grave danger, and so both take off in the Cloud-cutter to escape the plantation and prevent Wash’s capture and potential murder.
The adventures begin in earnest, at this time, as they are led in one direction or another, seemingly by chance encounters. Soon they are traveling the world from place to place, searching for Titch’s father, a well-known scientist whom Philip had told Titch had died. As possible sightings of his scholarly father persist, they travel to the Arctic to find him. The passage of time is ephemeral, and is hard to realistically determine based on the events taking place.
No matter what life throws at Wash, he seems almost supernatural and old beyond his years. He is as smart as a highly educated man, as well. He rises to the occasion no matter what he faces as lady luck seems to smile on him, helping him to survive to live another day. When after finding Titch’s father, Titch abandons him, wandering off into a snow storm and is never found, Wash begins to expore the world alone. He is but a teenager at the time without any known resources. He is an escaped slave, recognizable because of his facial scars and is in grave danger much of the time. Still, he makes his way to safety and, in Canada, where he soon meets a young woman, a couple of years older than him who is named Tanna, he finds a new life, once again. Tanna befriends him, and he discovers that her father is a famous zoologist, one he has actually studied, a man who knew Titch’s father and belonged to the same scholarly organizations and had the same honors bestowed upon him. Soon he is collecting and drawing specimens of marine life for him. When Titch conceives of the idea to open what might be the considered a modern day aquarium, they plan to do it together. However Ocean House, a place where marine life would be kept in tanks and viewed by the public, would never bear George Washington Black’s name.. This attraction to be built in London, in Regents Park, would only bring accolades to Mr. Goff, Tanna’s father. As a slave, and a black man, Wash would get no recognition even though it was his genius that conceived the idea and designed everything.
Although it is difficult to conceive of how much time has passed, exactly, the reader soon learns that like rumors about Titch’s father, there are now rumors about Titch himself. Is he still alive? Together with Tanna, he begins to search for him. He believes he may be in Morocco. At this time, Wash is about 18 and Tanna is 20. Their relationship has grown intimate.
Although it often feels as if great lengths of time have sometimes passed, the reader discovers that it is only a few months or years that have gone by. Sometimes the chapters seem to change so abruptly, the reader is left wondering what just happened or how much time has passed. The main character is Wash. He seems larger than life, capable of being at once naïve and then very sophisticated, at the same time. Although, when it begins, Wash is basically illiterate, he is treated with deference most of the time, as if he is a scholar, and is, in fact, described as a prodigy by Titch. His demeanor is, always well mannered and polite, but he often expresses disappointment which sometimes feels inappropriate.
There are times when what occurs requires the reader to suspend disbelief. There is occasional what feels like an infusion of magic and spirituality throughout the narrative which is lyrical and beautifully crafted even though the story often does lack cohesion and credibility when it extends into the world of fantasy. When the book ends, the reader might feel oddly disappointed, not knowing what will take place next, however, one is left with the idea that while Titch is still floundering, purposeless, George Washington Black has found his true purpose and intends to fight for it. After facing Titch and coming to terms with his misinterpretation of their relationship, he realizes that Titch could never be capable of the same depth of devotion that Wash has for him. He feels suddenly free to find his own future and he intends to fight for it. However, since he is black, without funds or family, the odds should be against him. This unreality is what faces the reader and Wash. The question is, what is Wash free to do?