Saturday, April 19, 2014

Review: Wash by Margaret Wrinkle

You probably think you know about all the atrocities committed under slavery, right? You've heard about the appalling physical abuse, even murder, of a people kept subjugated as property. But what about the breeding of slaves, using a man, a fellow human being, as a stud for hire, charging for the use of his fertility and for the potential attributes he will pass along to offspring? Margaret Wrinkle's novel, Wash, details just such a practice from the perspective of both slaveholder and slave.

Richardson is a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. After his first war, he was hoping that slavery would be abolished but when that didn't come to pass and economic necessity pushed him, he reluctantly abandoned his principles and joined the ranks of slaveholders. He justifies owning slaves as necessary to fulfill his deep seated desire to make his father proud by building the Western Tennessee town of Memphis into a successful empire. Richardson buys Wash's mother, Mena, a so-called "saltwater" slave because she sees something in him that makes her capture his interest and this same spark of something draws Richardson to her son Wash.

Wash, having been badly beaten and scarred by another owner leasing him while Richardson was at war, is never temperamentally suited to working in the fields but he does have an affinity with horses, landing him in Richardson's stable. Perhaps it was his proximity to the stallions used for stud that first put the idea in Richardson's mind or perhaps it was an acknowledgement of Wash's bad boy appeal to so many of the slave women and girls but when Richardson needed a financial infusion to continue to fund his dreams for Memphis, he turned this prized slave of his into a stud no different from his horses, maintaining a stud book and carefully watching the offspring that result from Wash's forced couplings. But Wash is of value to Richardson for more than his stud fees, being Richardson's chosen listener as he talks through the experiences of his life and his beliefs many nights when he cannot sleep.

For his part, Wash holds tight to the teachings of his mother and his early mentor the blacksmith Rufus, as he endures the indignity of what he must do. He perfects the ability to escape inside his own soul to a place where he cannot be touched and to tap into his ancestors' strength in the ways so important to his own sense of self. Inside himself, in this place, he is free and unenslaved. In the only relationship he is allowed to choose for himself, his connection to and comfort with the healer, Pallas, another damaged soul, he finds a balm and offers her the same in return.

Wrinkle doesn't shy away from the brutality and inhumanity, physical and emotional, inherent in owning human beings and denying their personhoods. She details the philosophy and justification for slavery unflinchingly here, making them as multi-faceted as they must have been but without glorifying or accepting them as right or true. As Richardson talks to Wash, his views come across loud and clear but so does Wash's deeply hidden desire to destroy this man even as he is forced to listen without action, his complete negation as a human being. Flipping from point of view to point of view offers Wrinkle the chance to tell her tale from each character's perspective, sometimes blind to the other characters' deepest held feelings and sometimes in full recognition of them. As careful and beautifully well written as the novel is, though, it is a ponderous and slow read. The plot is simply Wash's life, and as such there's not much driving the story along. There is a muted feel to the events it details, slightly lessening the impact of even those so horrific they should inspire range and an outcry. While beautiful, this novel carried more promise than it delivered.

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