Newspaper article News Sentinel

'Wash' Charts Beginnings of Slavery in the South

Newspaper article News Sentinel

'Wash' Charts Beginnings of Slavery in the South

Article excerpt

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." She's done an amazing job. 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.

Gen. James Richardson, a 70-year-old veteran of the Revolutionary War, is drowning in debt, desperate to save his plantation and businesses in Memphis. An urgent demand for slave labor in the newly minted territories of Arkansas and Louisiana offers Richardson a convenient "get out of jail free" card: He puts one of his slaves, the eponymous Wash, out to stud on a weekly basis.

The money pours in. By 1823, when the book opens, Wash, now 27, has been Richardson's "traveling negro" for five years, fathering children all over the county. His master, who fought for freedom from the British and spent years in chains as a POW, is uneasy with the arrangement but rationalizes it as no different than another of his enterprises -- horse breeding -- and prides himself on keeping Wash's "fine" unbroken strain in the mix.

The first of his family to be born in America, Wash grew up virtually free, raised on a North Carolina barrier island by his mother, Mena, a "saltwater" slave and spiritual adept, trained by West African shamans. Her teachings form the basis for the book's underlying themes: the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

When Wash describes Mena's rituals -- "Said she was laying her staples inside the pantry of my spirit" -- he could be describing Wrinkle's novel, where countless variations on this theme evoke a murmurous chorus of village elders, chanting a ring of protection around their enslaved descendants.

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: Richardson, Wash and Wash's lover Pallas, a slave doctor. Framing these first-person narratives is a third-person account that pans out to afford a wider perspective. …

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