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Margaret Wrinkle’s "Wash"

The South, Again, and Race

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Although the term “good slave owner” is no doubt an oxymoron, it is not difficult to refer to one of Margaret Wrinkle’s white characters in her haunting novel, Wash, as such. In contrast to the other slave owners in her story, Richardson is clearly more benign, much less given to violence and the horrific acts we see perpetrated by others.

We’re way back in the era of slavery, thirty or more years before the Civil War, closer to the Revolutionary War.  Richardson becomes part of that event, captured by the British and temporarily held prisoner in Canada.  Perhaps that experience humanizes him a bit, makes him more forward-looking than his peers.

When Richardson returns from the war, several of his children are already adults and he’s lost interest in most of the others.  As he reflects, “By and large, I feel more connected to the horses I’ve raised, the negroes I’ve owned and the accounts I’ve tended than my wife and most of my children.”  He’s especially concerned about Mena and her son, Wash, two slaves he farmed out to a neighboring plantation while he was off fighting.  That turned out to be a terrible decision because the owners of that plantation, Thompson (along with his sons), are people who are just about as violent as possible, certainly with no belief that slaves are human beings.  One of the sons maims Wash with a hammer, blinding him in one eye.

The sons also brand Wash with an “R” (for runaway) on one of his cheeks, though they know very well that the slave did not try to escape but had simply gone off for a few days of solace to ease his pain.  Fortunately, Wash’s mother, who is a healer, is able to get to him immediately after the branding and by her curative skills minimize the evidence of the burning.  There’s washbookcoverdeep irony here about several black characters in the novel who are healers, though the white slave owners around them are basically destroyers.  This makes sense, of course, given the need for survival in such difficult times.  Wrinkle has done her homework—not just about traditional African medicine—but also African beliefs and skills (particularly of her female characters).  She’s studied West African writers and cites one of them, Ben Okri, at the beginning of her novel.

Most of the novel takes place during 1823 and 1824.  Those are the final years for both Richardson and Wash, by which time a bond has been established between the two men, though neither of them would probably want to call it that.  Nor does that mean that Richardson hasn’t made mistakes and continues to do so.  His plantation was in a state of decline after his release from prison in Canada.  As a source of quick money (and also because he had difficulty controlling him), he began using Wash as a breeder, farming him out for a few nights, so that he could impregnate the slave women on other plantations and—once the children are born—collect a stud fee.  Wash is aided by Pallas, an African woman who is a skilled midwife.  She herself is childless.  In time, a complicated relationship among the three characters will evolve (Thompson, an old man in his seventies, Wash and Pallas).

The setting is mostly Tennessee, and one of Richardson’s goals is to help bring forth the birth of Memphis, which he hopes will become a major city. But that’s not exactly what happens.  Instead, we see Richardson’s dynasty crumble to the background of the complicated relationships of his three major characters.  There is also the implication from the beginning that the stronger characters, the slaves, will survive while the white plantation dynasties will collapse, often because of their own blind sightedness.

Comparisons between Margaret Wrinkle’s story and William Faulkner’s fiction have already been drawn by her advance readers.  That’s probably understandable given Wrinkle’s sense of Southern history; both authors share lush prose, birthed by the slavery context.  There are numerous connections between Wash and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, both lengthy narratives, though Wrinkle’s novel needed to undergo some rather judicious pruning.  I wanted to be more excited about Wash than I was; perhaps the problem was that for too many years I taught a course on Faulkner and the literature of the South.  So I urge you to read the novel for yourself, and make your own call—outside of my obvious bias.

Margaret Wrinkle: Wash

Atlantic Monthly Press, 405 pp., $25

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.