Masterful, Pulitzer-prize winning literary epic about the painful and complex realities of slave life on a Southern plantation. An utterly original exploration of race, trust and the cruel truths of human nature, this is a landmark in modern American literature. Henry Townsend, a black farmer, boot maker, and former slave, becomes proprietor of ...
Masterful, Pulitzer-prize winning literary epic about the painful and complex realities of slave life on a Southern plantation. An utterly original exploration of race, trust and the cruel truths of human nature, this is a landmark in modern American literature. Henry Townsend, a black farmer, boot maker, and former slave, becomes proprietor of his own plantation - as well as his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend household, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave 'speculators' sell free black people into slavery, and rumours of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years. An ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges from the past to the present, The Known World seamlessly weaves together the lives of the freed and the enslaved - and allows all of us a deeper understanding of the enduring multi-dimensional world created by the institution of slavery.
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Edward P. Jones' novel The Known World complicates the reader's knowledge of the "peculiar institution" of slavery by focusing in part upon the relationship between black slaveowners and their slaves, and reveals how contingent was the freedom even of freed slaves. The novel has an epic amplitude, sweep, and ambition, and is arguably more various in its characterization, particularly in its representation of black male characters, than Toni Morrison's celebrated Beloved, which depicted the interior lives of her three principal female characters, but also seemed to seek gender detente for the criticisms lodged against Alice Walker's The Color Purple by depicting her male characters like Paul D as moral angels (Ralph Ellison once commented that white American novelists depict African Americans in their books as clowns, beasts or angels). Jones' novel has echoes of Faulkner and Garcia Marquez--Faulkner's imagining of a world in Yoknapatawpha County, Gabo's magic realism--but his prose is plainer, less ornate, less fabulist than either. Read the novel for the moral complexity it brings to our understanding of slavery, but one warning: the multitude of characters is often confusing, and the author doesn't help matters by largely omitting distinguishing physical markers by which the reader might have identified them.
Apr 28, 2007
I was a little dismayed to have to read this book for a book group because the reviews when it first came out were off-putting. Yes, there were descriptions of the horrid abuse, physical, emotional, sexual, of slaves but the rest of the story carried the weight. I'm glad I decided to get started, and it was worth finishing.
There are a lot of similar characters as the other reviewer stated, and the story did jump from a given time frame to 50 years later or 10 years earlier. This is not a linear story but it is a well-written one. The writing flows and is so descriptive, I had to keep reading to see what else would happen. You start out caring or disliking some characters, and then find your opinions changing through the chapters.
Each chapter starts with several references and some of them seem to have no bearing on the main story. But Jones works his magic and it was satisfying to go back to the start of a chapter to see if I could recall what the references meant. This book is entertaining on many levels, and it requires some effort. If you are put off by that, and just want a straight story from A to B with 5 or so characters who all act rationally, then this is not a book for you.
Apr 1, 2007
Intriguing and fatiguing
The book centers around a fictional plantation where a black owner has slaves from his own race just before the Civil War. Yet the book doesn't really focus on this fact or its implications in a direct way. It becomes an expansive look at numerous characters in the county encompassing the plantation--black and white characters and their interactions. Unfortunately, the characters often enough behave in ways that are not consistent with their previous descriptions/actions and many of the characters sound similar enough to each other that it's difficult to sustain belief and care for the characters throughout the lengthy narrative. In addition, the author departs from the story with numerous historical sounding accounts of what happened to a character 50 years in the future, or to his forbears and how that led up to the current situation and person. This tendency vitiates the vitality of the story and makes the reader feel the book was written by an historian who couldn't subdue his usual writing style to do a novel. Intriguing premise and situation. But a book that ultimately saps the reader's interest.
Publishers Weekly, 2003-08-11 In a crabbed, powerful follow-up to his National Book Award-nominated short story collection (Lost in the City), Jones explores an oft-neglected chapter of American history, the world of blacks who owned blacks in the antebellum South. His fictional examination of this unusual phenomenon starts with the dying 31-year-old Henry Townsend, a former slave-now master of 33 slaves of his own and more than 50 acres of land in Manchester County, Va.-worried about the fate of his holdings upon his early death. As a slave in his youth, Henry makes himself indispensable to his master, William Robbins. Even after Henry's parents purchase the family's freedom, Henry retains his allegiance to Robbins, who patronizes him when he sets up shop as a shoemaker and helps him buy his first slaves and his plantation. Jones's thorough knowledge of the legal and social intricacies of slaveholding allows him to paint a complex, often startling picture of life in the region. His richest characterizations-of Robbins and Henry-are particularly revealing. Though he is a cruel master to his slaves, Robbins is desperately in love with a black woman and feels as much fondness for Henry as for his own children; Henry, meanwhile, reads Milton, but beats his slaves as readily as Robbins does. Henry's wife, Caldonia, is not as disciplined as her husband, and when he dies, his worst fears are realized: the plantation falls into chaos. Jones's prose can be rather static and his phrasings ponderous, but his narrative achieves crushing momentum through sheer accumulation of detail, unusual historical insight and generous character writing. Agent, Eric Simonoff. (Sept.) Forecast: This is a new tack for Jones, whose collection Lost in the City was set in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s and '70s. Amistad is sending the novel off with a bang-a 10-city author tour, a 20-city national radio campaign-and it should attract considerable review attention. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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