by Margaret Wrinkle; Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013; 408 pages; $25
As long as you can keep your mind’s eye good and strong, you can use the words to open a thing back out to how it really was. Just like tracks. A cluster of pads, tipped with claw points, can summon up the whole wolf.
It is that “whole wolf” that “Wash,” the powerful first novel by Birmingham-bred Margaret Wrinkle, so determinedly summons up. Its “cluster of pads, tipped with claw points” is a tragic aspect of our country’s history so specifically untenable that it is often difficult to face. But face it Wrinkle does, with a fearlessness and grace that will make readers forgive any of her novel’s slight shortcomings.
“Wash” faces the frightening fact of the human breeding of slaves in the years following the war for America’s independence. At the center of the book are three voices intimately enmeshed in the question, voices whose words confront the question with shattering frankness and majesty.
Wash is what was referred to as “a traveling negro,” a slave whose lot in life is essentially to be hired out to stud. This towering, self-contained man is the first of his family to be born a slave. His mother Mena has mystical powers that both beguile and baffle him. Yet as he processes both his ancestry and his fate (many times in the waters of his owner’s Tennessee plantation), Wash attains an enviable dignity.
It is Pallas, herself a slave named for the Greek goddess of wisdom and courage, who has a certain power over Wash. It is she who is the plantation’s herbalist and who everyone seeks out for healing, both physical and spiritual. Wash turns to Pallas for guidance to deal with his “work” and his heritage. Their relationship becomes the novel’s heartbreaking and stirring love story.
Wrinkle’s strongest creation is Richardson, a soldier who returns to his agrarian heritage as a plantation owner whose lands incurred debt while he was held prisoner during the recent war that in essence enslaved him and ultimately forced a battle for American independence. Richardson is troubled by what to do with the slaves he owns even as his holdings expand to the west. He understands why he now feels forced to hire Wash out, yet at the same time remains tortured for doing so. It is that situation that will bring Wash and Pallas and Richardson together at the novel’s fiery climax.
“Wash” is a disquieting and unflinching book. What it misses in its lack of attention to language — there’s little attempt to reproduce the dialectical patterns of its characters — it certainly makes up for in its attention to other period elements. Wrinkle writes with the detail of a seasoned documentarian and the haunting sensitivity of a seasoned novelist. “Wash” is both troubling and stirring, “a cluster of pads, tipped with claw points” from a new literary voice.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.