Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Review - The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Known World, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award is set on a plantation in antebellum Virginia, in the fictional county of Manchester, “the largest county in Virginia, a place of 2,191 slaves, 142 free Negroes, 939 whites, and 136 Indians, most of them Cherokee but with a sprinkling of Choctaw.”

Henry Townsend, the man around whom much of The Known World revolves, is a free black man, but his history is somewhat different than that of most black men in the southern US in the 1840s. Henry is not only free, he’s also a landowner and slaveowner himself, much to the dismay and outrage of his freed parents, Augustus and Mildred, two people who possess great dignity and two people who do not deserve the fate life has waiting for them. Unfortunately, Henry has learned to emulate, not his father, but his mentor, William Robbins, instead.

William Robbins is the most powerful white man in Manchester County, and he just happens to be deeply in love with one of his own black slaves, Philomena. He adores their two small children even though he’s prohibited from acknowledging those children as his own.

Despite his admiration of Robbins, Henry wanted to be a better master than Robbins, a better master than any white man had ever known. Ironically, the first slave Henry buys, he buys from William Robbins:

Moses was the first slave Henry Townsend had bought: $325 and a bill of sale from William Robbins, a white man. It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Sleeping in a cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses had thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business anymore?

The Known World opens in July 1855 as Henry Townsend is lying on his deathbed. He is only thirty-one years old. It’s not until after Henry’s death that Jones takes us back to this complex man’s youth and we get to know William Robbins, Philomena, Augustus, Mildred, Moses and the many other characters that populate this book. The book constantly shifts back and forth in time, but these shifts are handled smoothly and gracefully and the reader is never confused or disoriented with the non-linear narrative.

One of the most fascinating characters we meet in the course of The Known World is Caldonia, Henry’s young widow. At his death, Henry left Caldonia thirty-three slaves – thirteen women, eleven men, and nine children, and, on becoming their new owner, Caldonia is immediately faced with the decision of whether or not to free them. She quickly decides that following in her husband’s footsteps would be best for her – and her business interests. “Her husband had done the best he could,” Caldonia thinks, “and on Judgment Day his slaves would stand before God and testify to that fact.”

To some extent, we can forgive Caledonia the inhumanity of not freeing Henry’s slaves. Her role models certainly were not good ones. Besides Henry, there’s Maude, her domineering mother, a woman who was not above using arsenic on Caldonia’s father to make sure their own slaves were not freed. Then there’s Fern, Caldonia’s literature and etiquette instructor. Fern also encourages Caldonia, not only to retain the slaves Henry has purchased, but to socialize with William Robbins and Philomena and their two children as well as other free blacks who owned slaves. As Fern says later, to a fictional historian, “All of us do only what the law and God tell us we can do. We owned slaves. It was what was done, and so that is what we did.”

Jones writes with a sureness that many novels lack, but he never lets us get too close to any one of his characters. In most books, that would be a failing. In this one, it’s a plus. Keeping the events in the book somewhat distanced from the reader and placing them squarely in the history of the South, Jones has invented a Canadian historian (one who interviews Fern as a matter of fact, and who writes a pamphlet titled “Curiosities and Oddities About Our Southern Neighbors”). Personally, I loved this invention of Jones’. It allows him to insert details about his characters that otherwise might have weighed his main narrative down. And, to show he does have a sense of humor, Jones tells us that copies of this rare pamphlet were purchased for $1.7 million by a German with a penchant for “black” memorabilia.

I’ve heard some people refer to The Known World as a “pastiche of characters.” While it’s true that many characters abound in this book (I’ve only touched on a few in this review, there’s also Elias and Celeste and Alice and Barnum and many more), and they do give the book a very 19th century feel, but each one is fully developed and complex and fascinating. True, the book is introspective, and because it is, it is rather slow moving, but characterization is one of its high points. In The Known World, no one is wholly good or wholly bad.

One of the best examples of Jones’ skill at creating believable and complex characters is seen in the sheriff, John Skiffington. Skiffington is a Christian, and one who earnestly attempts to practice what he preaches. Convinced that the “law always cares” for everyone equally, Skiffington attempts to implement this ideal into his work. Of course, the law, which is not quite as idealistic as Skiffington, does not care for each person equally, so Skiffington is doomed from the very beginning.

The Known World is a rich and multilayered book, and Jones’ prose, despite the multitude of detail in the book, is surprisingly light on its feet. In fact, it’s Jones’ voice that moves this almost plotless book along. The example below, which details Henry Townsend’s death is one of the best:

About nine he fell asleep and woke not long after. His wife and Fern were discussing a Thomas Gray poem. He thought he knew the one they were talking about but as he formed some words to join the conversation, death stepped into the room and came to him: Henry walked up the steps into the tiniest of houses, knowing with each step that he did not own it, that he was only renting.

If you need a book that centers on a plot with a breakneck pace, The Known World won’t be the one for you. If, however, you enjoy books that inspire you to think, books that make you wish you could rewrite a part of history no one is particularly proud of, then you’ll find much to reflect on as you read The Known World. Its characters are richly and beautifully rendered and all are people who won’t soon be forgotten. This isn't "another book on slavery." It is, instead, about the legacy of slavery, a legacy that cannot, and will not, and should not be forgotten.


Recommended: Definitely, for those who enjoy character driven books and don’t require a breakneck plot to keep them engaged.

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