Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book review: Wash by Margaret Wrinkle

I had absurdly high expectations for this book, which were pretty much asking to be dashed. That said, I liked it pretty well overall. I do though wish it had been a bit shorter, and had read faster.

In Tennessee in the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, a man named Richardson has an unusual relationship with his slave Wash (short for Washington.) Rutherford had loaned out Wash's mother to an older friend, Thompson, who took her to an island in North Carolina's Outer Banks where Wash was born and raised. After Thompson's death, things got bad for Wash quickly, as he was someone who does not easily overlook being disrespected and treated like trash. After a couple of incidents, Wash is returned to Richardson, injured and ill. When we recovers, Richardson, who has bred horses all his life, finally finds the right job to suit Wash's temperament: being a stud. Literally. Nearby slave owners contact Richardson to rent Wash for a weekend, during which he's expected to impregnate as many slave women of child-bearing age as possible. Richardson, who is conflicted over slavery, finds Wash a companion to confide in, even if Wash doesn't return his trust.

I found this a fascinating time period that's almost never written about, 1812-1835 or so. And it was very neat to see through Richardson's eyes how during the Revolution, he and many others hoped slavery would be outlawed. And it's interesting that he ended up owning slaves after that. For him, it was a matter of practicality, not tradition or honor or principles. I really liked the character of Rufus, a blacksmith who tries to show Wash how to be a proud black man without getting himself killed, although he disappeared halfway through the book. Wash's mother was also interesting, who had been kidnapped from Africa and tried to teach Wash their old ways and old religion, although she too disappeared about halfway. At that point, when Wash was an adult and fell in love with Pallas, the local midwife, and when Richardson started confiding in him, was when I found the book bogged down. It felt repetitive at times and the atmosphere-building became too much for me. I did not understand why she both flipped between multiple first-person narrators and occasional third-person narration. I did stick it out though, because of the good reviews and the personal recommendations and that I have met Ms. Wrinkle and really liked her.

My book club discussed the book and it was very interesting for that. There were a ton of topics to discuss and interesting characters and parallels between the first half and the second half of the book. But I wish it had been a little shorter, which would have taken care of the repetition and too-much descriptions, and it was too slow for my taste, although some people will love to get lost in the world Ms. Wrinkle's so meticulously and poetically built.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books, after a WNBA event where the author appeared.

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