By Margaret Wrinkle
Atlantic Monthly Press, 417 pages, $30.50
INTEREST in slavery in the U.S. has been piqued recently by the Oscar-nominated films Lincoln and Django Unchained. These movies present wildly divergent perspectives on the American South's "peculiar institution" as it was delicately called.
Diverging from either of the films is the troubling, unsatisfying first novel from Alabama-born and raised Margaret Wrinkle, about a slave in the early 19th century whose role is to breed other slaves for the profit of his owner.
Wash -- short for Washington -- was born to Mena, who had been purchased by Tennessee plantation owner and land speculator Richardson, not knowing she was pregnant. She is leased to Thompson, who wants a cook and housekeeper for his retirement off the coast of North Carolina.
Mena and her child have a great deal of freedom, for slaves, and she teaches Wash African ways to see himself as human in the new world that treats him like property.
In his later years, working for Richardson, he is an outcast both for his physical deformity, inflicted by a vicious caretaker, and for his service to his master, impregnating slave women for other owners.
The other main character is Pallas, a healer who heals Wash, and then bonds with him in spite of his duties. Richardson, Pallas and Wash are connected by their differences from those around them; together and separately they struggle to find their own meaning and worth in a brutal, inhuman system.
Much of this episodic novel takes place within the minds of the main, and some minor, characters. Occasional third-person narration, and the characters' internal musings, allow us to get to know them intimately. However, by the end of the novel, it seems as if little has happened other than these streams of consciousness, and those expecting much plot may be disappointed.
Wrinkle is a visual artist and documentarian, and many of her vivid prose descriptions of emotions and motivations are very effective. Still, the slowness of the narrative will not please every reader.
Disconnected and unresolved episodes seem to occur mostly to allow the characters to consider their lives and relationships: to each other, to the past, and to the future.
After a cleansing time floating downriver, Wash swims back to where he started:
"Moving steadily against the current soothes him, making him once again glad to be in this body in this world. Working, pulling, breathing, getting somewhere. Then he picks his way up the faint path through the dark, brimming with the pleasure of knowing that he has once again pulled himself back from the brink."
As Pallas and Wash draw nearer to each other, slowly, she expresses her carefulness.
"But I'd learned to keep myself wrapped clear around myself, just like those bloodroot leaves wrap around that flower standing so straight. And I remember doing just like that, standing way back inside myself, watching him trying to look at me."
Whether slave-breeding as presented in this novel was widespread in the antebellum South is an open historical question. Wrinkle does not present it as factual, but uses the possibility that it existed to motivate and conflict her characters. Other brutal aspects of slavery are treated matter-of-factly, not sensationalized or excused.
Somewhere in between the political wrangling of Lincoln, and the gleefully violent mayhem of Django, Wash will not probably stir up the kind of controversy attached to William Styron's 1967 bestseller, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Wrinkle has managed to write a novel set in slavery that is not primarily to make points about slavery's dehumanization, but to show all humans as fallible, interconnected and worthwhile.
Bill Rambo, an American citizen raised in the South and in central Africa, teaches high school English and history -- including American History -- at the Laureate Academy in St. Norbert.