WASH. By Margaret Wrinkle. Atlantic Monthly Press. 384 pages. $25.
Margaret Wrinkle, a filmmaker and seventh-generation Southerner, had almost nothing to go on when she decided to investigate a rumor that one of her ancestors was involved in slave breeding.
When her research yielded little more than another rumor, Wrinkle decided to fill in the blanks with her debut novel, “Wash.” Never has a fictionalized window into the relationship between slave and master opened onto such believable territory: the minds and hearts of two men and a woman who grapple with a troubled, lifelong alliance on a plantation in Tennessee during the first half of the 19th century.
Spanning the years before the American Revolution to the mid-1800s, the story unfolds in a fluid sweep of time and history through the beautifully imagined interior monologues of a handful of narrators: Gen. James Richardson, a 70-year-old veteran of the Revolutionary War; Wash, one of the general’s slaves; and Pallas, Wash’s lover and a slave doctor. Framing these first-person narratives is a third-person account that pans out to afford a wider perspective.
“Wash” unfolds like a dreamy, impressionistic landscape that requires the reader to pay attention or risk getting lost. Wrinkle covers a lot of ground, both historically and emotionally, exploring a time when the breaking-in period of American slavery was still under way, when rebellions echoed from Haiti and the “sugar islands” and King George’s whip hand was only decades behind us.
The slaves we meet in “Wash” form a cabal of spiritually resilient souls. Their old-world beliefs offset their circumstances. They know how to hold back their “African,” keep talismans and shrines and heal each other with herbs and touch. They protect themselves by reading their owners’ moods and carving out a space for themselves.
At the end of this book, Pallas, who reads the ledger in which Richardson keeps track of Wash’s offspring, marvels at how the combined stories, oral and written, of slave and master might one day come together.