Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press


by Margaret Wrinkle

“A masterly literary work . . . Wrinkle’s novel does not allow us to draw easy correlations but invites us to consider the painful inheritance and implications of such a horrendous moment in American history. . . . Wash is both redemptive and affirming.” —Major Jackson, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 432
  • Publication Date November 12, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2203-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date February 05, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2066-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

“A significant and hugely troubling book.” —Pinckney Benedict, author of Dogs of God

In this luminous debut, Margaret Wrinkle takes us on an unforgettable journey across continents and through time, from the burgeoning American South to West Africa and deep into the ancestral stories that reside in the soul. Wash introduces a remarkable new voice in American literature.

In early 1800s Tennessee, two men find themselves locked in an intimate power struggle. Richardson, a troubled Revolutionary War veteran, has spent his life fighting not only for his country but also for wealth and status. When the pressures of westward expansion and debt threaten to destroy everything he’s built, he sets Washington, a young man he owns, to work as his breeding sire. Wash, the first member of his family to be born into slavery, struggles to hold onto his only solace: the spirituality inherited from his shamanic mother. As he navigates the treacherous currents of his position, despair and disease lead him to a potent healer named Pallas. Their tender love unfolds against this turbulent backdrop while she inspires him to forge a new understanding of his heritage and his place in it. Once Richardson and Wash find themselves at a crossroads, all three lives are pushed to the brink.

Tags Literary


“In this deeply researched, deeply felt debut novel, documentarian Wrinkle aims a sure pen at a crucial moment following America’s War of Independence. . . . The novel well evokes the tragedy not only of [its] lovers’ untenable positions, but also that of their master and his fragile country.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A marvel. By turns grim and lyrical, heart-wrenching and hopeful.” —People (four stars; a People Pick)

“A masterly literary work . . . Wrinkle’s novel does not allow us to draw easy correlations but invites us to consider the painful inheritance and implications of such a horrendous moment in American history. Rather than disapproving opprobrium and diatribes, this debut occasions celebration. Haunting, tender and superbly measured, Wash is both redemptive and affirming.” —Major Jackson, The New York Times Book Review

“Wrinkle bears witness to the inhumanity of slavery . . . A moving and heart-rending novel.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[An] unflinching, stunningly imagined debut.” —Vanity Fair

“A powerful novel.” —O, the Oprah Magazine (one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now”)

“Heart-rending . . . Wrinkle has written a remarkable first novel, one that will haunt readers with the questions it raises, and the disturbing glimpse it offers into an unfathomable world.” —Booklist

“The voices of the past can’t speak for themselves and must rely on the artists of the future to honor them. It’s a profound responsibility and one that Margaret Wrinkle meets in her brilliant novel Wash. She shows not only the courage to submerge herself in the Stygian world of plantation slavery but also the grace and sensitivity to bring that world to life . . . Narrative roles are given to Wash, fellow slaves and his succession of masters, creating a dense, hypnotic ensemble of voices similar to the effect achieved in Peter Matthiessen’s momentous retelling of the life of a Florida sugar plantation owner, Shadow Country . . . It’s from patriarchs like Wash as well as like Richardson, Ms. Wrinkle shows, that the U.S. was born.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

“A lyrical story of courageous human beings transcending the cruelty and degradation of their slave-holding society.” —The Dallas Morning News

“[Wrinkle] plumbs beyond the brutality and into the wisdom of the ages to compose an elegiac yet surprisingly uplifting portrait of the resilience of the human spirit. . . . Wash is a solemn and magnificent paean to the survival—even amid the most crushing, inhumane conditions—of the special and eternal essence within every soul.” —Shelf Awareness

“Amazing . . . Never has a fictionalized window into the relationship between slave and master opened onto such believable territory . . . Wash unfolds like a dreamy, impressionistic landscape . . . [A] luminous book.” —Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“The history of the South provides plenty of tense, complicated material. Even subjects we think we know well can often reveal new stories in the hands of a talented author. Margaret Wrinkle’s debut novel Wash is one of those stories.” —Jackson Free Press

“[A] profound debut novel that takes readers on a journey into a past that left an inevitable mark in America’s history . . . Wash is a powerfully haunting tale about the captor and captive. It offers a look at both through their own narrative form expressing their true feeling.” —Birmingham Times

“Wrinkle has spotlighted a crucial era in the American experience, writing with grace and intelligence.” —New York Journal of Books

“Wrinkle masterfully takes us on a powerful journey through the darkest past and present of this country, boldly addressing the chasm of racial divide with the scalpel of a gruesome truth. Wash is the epitome of courage and determination to heal the central wound of this culture.” —Malidoma Patrice Somé, author of The Healing Wisdom of Africa

Wash is bold, unflinching, and when finished, certain to haunt the reader for a long, long time.” —Ron Rash, author of Serena and The Cove

“Boldly conceived and brilliantly written, Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash reveals the horrible human predation of slavery and its nest of nightmares. With a truthfulness even beyond Faulkner, Wrinkle makes her novelistic debut in a monumental work of unflinching imagination.” —Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife, Four Spirits, Abundance, and Adam and Eve

“Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash is a marvelous window into the world of nineteenth century American slavery—a powerful fusion of knowledge and imagination.” —Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone that the Builder Refused

“A significant and hugely troubling book.” —Pinckney Benedict, author of Miracle Boy, Town Smokes, The Wrecking Yard, and Dogs of God

“This majestic, beautifully-written novel will both break your heart and make it wiser.” —Charles Gaines, author of Stay Hungry, Pumping Iron, A Family Place, and The Next Valley Over

“This exquisite novel is a gift of healing. It exposes the dark and fearsome sin that stains our history, and confronts the guilt that lurks in our collective American soul. But in the genius of the telling we are led to the tenderness at the bone, the humanity at the core, and buoyed by joy.” —Beverly Swerling, author of Bristol House

“A unique and powerful story, Wash tells a chapter of our past that we would rather look away from. Margaret Wrinkle makes sure that we cannot. Her whole life has led up to this book, and she writes it in a sure and captivating voice, augmented by her remarkable pictures.” —Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row, Dreamland, and Paradise Alley

“Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash is a marvelous window into the world of nineteenth-century American slavery—a powerful fusion of knowledge and imagination.” —Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls’ Rising


Shortlisted for the Center for Fiction Flaherty Dunnan Award
A National Reading Group Great Group Reads Pick
An O, the Oprah Magazine “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now”
A People Magazine Pick


It was one of his early trips to Miller’s when I first laid eyes on Wash. Pretty soon, I learned to be gone when they brought him. Made sure to be out gathering or else seeing about folks. But that first Friday afternoon when Richardson sent Wash over here to do his business, I was home and I saw it all.

Watched him ride in on that wagon while I started my fire. Stood there stewing some goldenseal and saw Wash dip one shoulder to duck inside that small side door of Miller’s barn, with Richardson’s man Quinn following right behind him step for step.

Richardson’s horses, one rust and one a faded gray, stayed tied to that shaded post all day. His wagon stood right close by the barn while they loaded it down till it sagged. One hogshead of tobacco, high as my waist. Bolts of the same cloth they’d all be wearing next year. Three casks of apple brandy.

All in barter.

I knew everything from the beginning. Can’t say I didn’t. But it’s like Phoebe told me, everything’s fine so long as you find a way to manage it. It’s when you can’t see what you’re dealing with that you head into trouble.

Reading Group Guide

1. Wrinkle has a hypnotic way of enfolding the reader into backstories as characters recall their histories. How does her use of multiple narrators and overlapping chronologies fit the concerns and themes of her novel? How do the present and the past relate to one another, both in each character’s story and in the novel itself?

2. Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri’s The Famished Road provides the epigraph for Wash, which closes with the startling statement about living as a spirit: “We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom learn to see.” Consider what Okri might mean about learning to see, and how the characters in Wash both resist and embrace learning to see. What moments of both moral and interpersonal blindness stand out? What surprising insights, connections, and generosities sometimes occur? On the other hand, discuss how looking and seeing can be dangerous in a slave society.

3. Storytelling becomes an active art and mystery, within both the enslaved and slaveholding communities. Think about the characters’ use of storytelling to fill young minds with the fundamental tools to find their way in life. Consider the differences between what Wash is taught by his mother and what Richardson is taught by his father. What kinds of legacies are passed down and how are they accepted or rejected?

4. How does Wash’s childhood on the island provide a foundation for his sense of self and help prepare him for trials he will face later in life? What do Mena and Rufus teach Wash about how to use his mind’s eye? Discuss how the mind’s eye relates to the development of Wash’s inner place and helps him survive.

5. What do you glean from the novel about the function of altars, talismans, and rituals in the lives of the enslaved African characters? Consider what Mena means when she tells Wash, “Take your journeys in the spirit world first” (67). Why does Thompson call her teachings “mojo?”

6. How does the novel address the role of initiation in traditional African life, for both boys and girls? Mena knows that “death must draw close . . . but how close . . . and how do you meet it so it will pass on by?” (108). What is Rufus’s relationship to this ritual, both before and after his enslavement? How do Wash’s teenage trials serve as a kind of initiation? Consider whether any of the slaveholding characters face similar initiatory trials.

7. The natural world plays an important role in the lives of all the novel’s main characters in differing ways. Why might some turn to it for solace and healing while others tend to see it as a challenge to dominate and subdue? How might the power dynamics of slavery drive these different ways of relating to the natural world?

8. What role does secrecy play in the book? More specifically, how is it attached to the ideas of power and freedom? Think about secrets kept and secrets told. Mena and Wash hide their altars and talismans, Wash hides Mena’s grave just as Pallas and Richardson work together to hide his, and Richardson and Wash both hide the logbook. What are the historical ramifications of all these secrets? Why does Pallas ultimately decide to tell Wash’s children about him?

9. Wrinkle chose to tell this story using both first- and third-person narration. Why might it be important for a novel about American slavery be told from differing and often contradictory points of view? Consider how each character views the role and function of storytelling differently.

10. How are conflicting views on slavery presented in the novel? Were you surprised that slavery was a controversial issue even in Revolutionary times, or that slaveholders and abolitionists could be friends? Consider what Richardson means when he tells the combative Isobel Bryce about the dilemma faced by the Founding Fathers: “Slavery was something to be endured for the sake of our brand new and extremely fragile Union” (304). How does William’s abolitionism affect his slaveholding family?

11. Are similarly conflicting views on spirituality and religion portrayed in the novel? Compare Mary’s use of the Bible as a justification for slavery with Emmaline’s use of the Bible as a talisman, or Virgil’s and Albert’s use of the twisted stick as a form of conjure. What does Richardson mean when he says, “I was so determined to believe what I’d been taught, that I had dominion” (393)? Think of all the reasons these characters need and practice religion of any kind. What expressions of spirituality seem specifically African in origin?

12. Richardson stabs Nero to avoid being strangled. How does this violent incident reverberate through both the slaveholding and enslaved communities? Why is Richardson so conflicted, both about this event and his struggle to write it down? Discuss how Wash makes sense of the incident.

13. When Wash gets hit in the head with a hammer, how does Mena help him? What meaning does he choose to make from the incident, and does he come to this understanding at the time, or later?

14. How is the encounter between Wash and the chestnut stud (212) a turning point for Wash? What is his revelation about slack and breaking point? How does the insight help him understand himself and re-envision the arc of his life?

15. Sexual exploitation is inherent to the institution of slavery. Why does Richardson decide to use Wash as his “traveling negro”? How does Wash see the advantages and disadvantages of this work as compared to the other options available to him? Consider how this work both isolates and endangers him.

16. What do you make of the incident in which Wash knocks out CeCe? How does he deal with the tendency toward violence that is brought out in him both by his past experiences and by his ongoing challenges? How do CeCe’s mother and Pallas view the incident? Discuss whether Richardson, Thompson, and Eli face similar dilemmas in their ongoing struggles to control the enslaved people they own.

17. How might the legacy of violence required and engendered by slavery continue to affect us now? Consider what other patterns laid down during slavery might still be shaping our contemporary society. Do you see any parallels between Wash’s struggles and the challenges faced by young black men today?

18. Wash and Richardson, while often utterly opposed, share certain qualities and circumstances. Each gains and abuses power, and both are isolated and disempowered in differing ways. How are Wash’s and Richardson’s respective struggles for self-mastery parallel and how are they divergent? How does each man change throughout the novel?

19. Thompson is an important bridge figure. Think about what he teaches Richardson, what the Ibos teach him, what he learns from the loss of his third son, and what he manages to give Wash. How are these lessons linked? What kind of suffering do Richardson and Thompson undergo? Why is Richardson able to tell his story to Wash but not to his own son, Lucius?

20. Consider the relationship between empathy, compassion, and perspective. What does Wash mean when he says, “Same current pulls on white folks too. Sometimes I think maybe it’s worse for them. So much more pulling on em and so much less to hold on to. What little they got must feel like reeds” (48). What is this current? By what calculus might whites have “more pulling on em” and “less to hold on to” than enslaved people bereft of physical freedom and material wealth?

21. Wash says of his relationship with Pallas: “Me and Pallas, our minds are alike. Two night birds, right on each other’s tail, swooping then banking” (34). Discuss what is unusual or special in the relationship between Pallas and Wash.

22. Like Wash, Pallas also undergoes a traumatic sexual ordeal. Why does Drummond decide to lease Pallas from Miller and why does Miller agree to it? Why might it be important for Pallas to tell the story of both her trauma and her healing? Discuss how Wash and Pallas’s shared history of sexual abuse both unites and divides them. What are some of the ways in which Pallas and Wash help one another to heal?

23. Wrinkle sensitively depicts the aftereffects not just of enslavement but of specifically sexual violence as well. What does the narrative suggest about the possibilities for healing these wounds? Can any scenes be said to have healing power for readers and characters alike?

24. Martin Luther King Jr. contended that unearned suffering can be redemptive, while James Baldwin has said that if you cannot face your suffering, you can never grow up. What does this novel suggest about the potential function of trauma and suffering?

25. Consider how the enslaved characters achieve some measure of autonomy. Pallas muses, “It’s like Phoebe told me, everything’s fine so long as you find a way to manage it” (1). What are some of the ways Pallas and Wash “manage” the brutal predicament of slavery? Conversely, what hampers the autonomy of the white slaveholding characters?

26. Signs, symbols and writing are important in this novel. How do Wash, Richardson, and Pallas view writing and reading differently, and what might slavery have to do with these differences? Many of the enslaved characters come from an oral culture, are denied literacy, and are controlled through the use of written documents. How do differing kinds of literacy—textual, spiritual, emotional—come into play in this story? How and when do these various ways of reading become a matter of life and death?

27. Wash reflects on the place of written documentation and its absence in the lives of the white and black communities: “They’ll write down who they are and what they did . . . Put it all in a book, then close it up and put it on the shelf. Just to know it’s there so they can sleep at night. . . . But there ain’t no writing this down. No book to put this in. Some of us shut our eyes at night and wake up in the morning, not written down nowhere. And still don’t disappear” (6–7). What, according to this passage, is the implied role and consequence of record keeping and the writing of history? Consider the writing of the novel Wash in respect to this issue.

28. Discuss the novel’s title Wash in light of all the water imagery it contains. For instance, Thompson’s narration (57–65) recalls Wash’s initiation into the sea even while still in the womb. Richardson, too, is eased by the Rivers of Babylon psalm when he “can feel the water pouring over him” (383). At what other times—and in what other ways—are Wash, Pallas, and others redeemed, restored, and interconnected by water? Does the title Wash have multiple meanings?

29. In a traditional African paradigm, everything is interconnected and animate. The dead and the living are intended to coexist in a reciprocal arrangement, each helping the other. How does the novel speak to this potential interconnectedness? Consider the consequences of such a worldview, both for those who hold it and for those who don’t. What might the dedication mean when it refers to “all those in Deads’ Town”?

30. Which encounters between enslaved and slaveholding characters stood out? Discuss where collisions of personality, imbalances of power, and failures of understanding lead to conflict. Is there a difference between prejudice and mistrust, and did you ever feel that prejudice was every truly eroded and trust was truly built? Is this kind of cross-racial understanding possible in a slave society? What about in contemporary society?

Suggestions for Further Reading:
Beloved by Toni Morrison; Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston; The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom; Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; A Girl Made of Dust by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; Dominion by Calvin Baker; July’s People by Nadine Gordimer; Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent; Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard; The Bone People by Keri Hulme; The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner; Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass; Kindred by Octavia Butler; The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyemi; Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball.