Edward P. Jones

"The Known World"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran DEC 29, 2003)

 

"He knew he was going to die but he thought this little thing might provide him with a nothing stool way off in the corner of heaven that nobody cared about."

 

It seems that works of historical fiction often break down into two camps. One is heavy on the historical, giving us weighty tomes that are often just textbooks masquerading as novels. In the other group, heavy on the fiction, characters interact with 21st century sensibilities, the historical setting a mere backdrop. As a former history teacher, neither makes me happy. I always want people to be excited and engaged with history; they should view it neither as medicinal nor as fluff, a tall order, it seems.

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Given that protracted explanation of my preconceived misgivings with the entire genre, I have to say that I have finally found an example that artfully blends the two camps, a historical novel that is both historically illuminating and literarily challenging. It's The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a nominee for the 2003 National Book Award in fiction.

Most Americans are familiar with the tragedy of slavery, but I would wager a small sum that many are unaware that not all slave owners were white. Pockets of African American slave owners existed across the South throughout the antebellum period. One such former slave turned slave owner is at the center of Jones' complex and in-depth novel. Jones' protagonist, such as he is, is Henry Townsend, born into slavery in Manchester County Virginia on the farm on William Robbins, a powerful and by no means benevolent white aristocrat. Robbins follows the letter and spirit of slavery laws, however, and allows Henry's father, Augustus Townsend, to hire himself out, earning enough money to buy his freedom, then eventually that of his wife and young Henry.

Henry had somewhat of a glorified position in the Robbins household, serving as kind of protégé to "Marse" Robbins, probably from which springs his beliefs in the "natural order and necessity" of slavery. When Henry grows up, he purchases several slaves from Robbins, marries a free black woman and commences to farm his land. Henry is by no means the sole black slaveholder in Manchester County, the "known world" of the title, there are several other African American owners, including a highly educated female teacher.

The novel moves slowly so as to allow the reader time to acquaint himself with the large cast of characters, black and white, slave and free. Jones' characters are intricately rendered, there is no absolute bad and good as frequently occurs with novels about slavery or the Civil War. He includes no saintly Uncle Tom or abolitionist martyr. In addition to the Townsends, who are horrified when an adult Henry buys his first slave and the other black slaveholders, we meet Henry's wife Caldonia, a woman confused and confounded by her passions and beliefs. Also included are the white sheriff, cruel slave patrollers, numerous slaves, and Robbins' black mistress and two bastard children. The novel jumps back and forth in time, allowing each character to emerge as a full person. The switchbacks and asides are neither confusing nor detrimental to the overall plot, which really doesn't emerge until around the last 100 pages mainly because by that time, the reader is so engrossed in the lives and thoughts of the characters that a plot almost seems superfluous.

The Known World is certainly not just a pastiche of characters, Jones allows us enough plot to reveal a true view of 18th century America in all its complexity. Free blacks sold illegally back into slavery, the gut wrenching lack of medical care and the power of land and money for both black and white are all woven together with an interesting look at domestic habits and customs.

While it is certainly not a barn burner, nor an annotated historical essay, The Known World is a thoughtful and intricate look into a peculiar aspect of that most peculiar institution. It is thoughtful, insightful and detailed, something that does this old history teacher's heart proud.

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Read a chapter excerpt from The Known World at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

author photoEdward P. Jones was born and raised in Washington, D.C. Winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award and recipient of the Lannan Foundation Grant, Jones was educated at Holy Cross College and the University of Virginia. His first book, Lost in the City was shortlisted for the National Book Award. His debut novel The Known World won National Book Award and the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Jones lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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