Wash by Margaret Wrinkle (Atlantic Monthly Press; 384 pages; $25).
Two singular individuals, Richardson and Wash, bookend Margaret Wrinkle’s wisely assured debut, Wash. Wrinkle, an Alabama native, uses Richardson and Wash to explore the inherent contradictions of slavery and freedom. Although Richardson is white and Wash is black, the two men are both bound: Richardson by convention and Wash by the color of his skin. Wash may be fiction, but Wrinkle writes this tale so credibly and accurately that the Old Southwest, with all its mayhem and turbulence, comes alive in her skilled hands.
Richardson had fought for freedom from tyranny in the Revolutionary War and had served his fledgling country in the War of 1812. His father was an indentured servant. During his last stint as a soldier, Richardson was captured by the British and chained as a prisoner of war. His brief confinement, for him, was akin to being enslaved. He did not like it very much.
By 1823, Richardson had settled in Tennessee and decided there was no more profit to be made in cotton. Instead, he believed, the real money was in the procreation of slaves. The United States government had banned slave importation from Africa in 1808; thus, the buying and selling of “countryborn,” or American-born slaves, was in high demand.
For Richardson, it’s pretty simple, really—he wants to make money. He comes up with the idea to loan out his slave, Wash, to be a kind of “stud” to his neighbors. The other masters line up to make appointments with Wash. Every weekend, Wash visits certain female slaves and lies with them. A slave midwife, Pallas, accompanies him to record their names and any resulting pregnancies and/or births.
“Wash” is short for Washington, a name Richardson bestowed on him at birth, a very common practice at the time. As Wrinkle writes, Wash was the “first negro born to” Richardson, and he “wanted a name with some weight to it.”
When Wash does his duty, he travels deep inside himself, a technique he learned from his shamanistic West African mother. Wash does not enjoy his position, even when it gives him opportunities not given to other slaves. Wash would rather be with Pallas.
As the years pass, many children are born from Wash and the slave women. Richardson gets a cut of exactly $200 for each child that is born. Wash sees the irony. Richardson gets “more than he bargained for” when Wash’s face and his ways begin “to crop up on most places round here. “ Richardson gave Wash “a big man’s name,” a name that Wash lives up to as he makes his “own country.”
Despite the money Richardson rakes in, he finds it difficult to sleep most nights. He and other slaveholders like him worry that their slaves, who increasingly outnumber whites, will slaughter them in their beds as they sleep, just as Denmark Vesey planned to do in Charleston in 1822. This fear was truly palpable for white masters.
Ironically, as whites fought in the revolution, taking up arms against their oppressors, their black slaves emulated their owners’ behavior time and again. Most often, slaves resisted by running away, refusing to work, breaking tools, poisoning food, stealing animals, and many other minor rebellious acts.
Wrinkle truly shows just how “peculiar” the “peculiar institution” of slavery was in Wash when Richardson visits Wash at night to talk to him in the barn, Wash’s preferred place of rest.
A veteran of two wars, Richardson knows he himself fought for freedom from a tyrannical power. He understands that holding men in bondage is antithetical to revolutionary ideals, but he is only one person and cannot abolish racial slavery.
Listening to Richardson at night, Wash entertains the thought of killing his master. But Wash knows such an idea is futile and would mean his own death sentence. So he listens to Richardson’s rationalizations and confessions, but sometimes Wash retreats deep inside.
Richardson does not like the idea of racial slavery, but he is shrewd enough to know that black servitude is too deeply entrenched socially, politically, culturally, psychologically, and economically. Both Richardson and Wash are thus bound.
They are not the only ones. Richardson’s daughter, Livia, highly intelligent, is bound by her gender. William, Richardson’s son, seems to be the only character strong enough to strain his bonds as he marries a woman who is part African American.
Wrinkle provides the reader windows into the lives and workings of a motley crew of people in Wash, making the whole story richer and more satisfying. Wrinkle provides fascinating insights into her characters and into the Old Southwestern frontier. Wash is an intriguing character-driven story woven with history and African cultural traditions. Wrinkle shows slaves and slave owners were constrained, bound together, despite the revolution. Readers will learn more about the paradox of freedom and slavery in Wash than in any history book because Wrinkle brings it all to life so eloquently and masterfully.