The Known World

ISBN: 0060749911
ISBN 13: 9780060749910
By: Edward P. Jones

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About this book

In one of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, Edward P. Jones, two-time National Book Award finalist, tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can't uphold the estate's order and chaos ensues. In a daring and ambitious novel, Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all of its moral complexities.

Reader's Thoughts

Nathan James

Overall, the story was interesting; black families in Virginia owning their own slaves and the implications thereof. The narration was told in a sweeping way that I'm sure was intended to sound like an oral history. I was willing to ignore my annoyance at not being able to gauge exactly where I was in the timeline. My problem was managing the timeline with all of the characters. I also had fun figuring out how to spot Jones's subtle segues into a new time. Toward the end of the book, I could spot the passing of 20 years without rereading. But the beginning of the book is just a blur. The story focused most of its energy on the Townshend plantation and its workers. But all of the people on the estate were married to, children of, parents of, illegitimate parents of, cheating with people from all the other estates in the county. And once you found a character you liked you had till the end of the paragraph before a whole new character and plot point were introduced.I did like the book. I know many people would be fine with the flow of the narrative. I think the author could have made it easier for the reader to follow the premise and not at the expense of the oral history narration. That's all.

Sam

My well-read mother-in-law referred this one to me. Fascinating. Well written. A modern day Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Freed Blacks owning slaves turns many of the justifications for slavery on their head, from the inferior black man argument, to God’s disapproval of the race. Touching, depressing, exciting, I couldn’t put this one down. I have yet to reconcile my believe and patriotism in America with the despicable practice of slavery that endured for over 100 years. This is a topic that really intrigues me.

Pamela_b_lawrencemsn.com

Great great book. One of the characters early on says, as strange as a world that makes him slave to a white man, "God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people owning their own kind." Not much I can say that hasn't been said by many other reviewers, and probably the Pulitzer Prize committee, but this is a clear-eyed book about slavery in the 1850s about the moral bankruptcy that allowed it to happen and that it engendered. This novel is not a page turner and you would do yourself a disservice if you did not take the time to savor every sentence, every bit of dialogue. The novel is also an architectural wonder, apparently seamlessly flowing from story to story, the result of meticulous crafting. Even though the setting is slavery, the novel is also about the things that divide us and unite us, constrained by artficiality - slavery - or not. The themes are epic - tragedy within the larger tragedy, betrayal, ambition, unwarranted brutality, striving for a better life or to be a better person, grace arising from adapting to circumstances, disappointment in children, true love, and forgiveness. Each character is fully inhabited. I only have to look at the cover of the book, one I do not want to part with, and they and their fates - because the author has created one for each one - immediately come rushing back to me. Read this book!

Monica

Gorgeously woven and incredibly interesting historical fiction about black slave owners, slaves, and the people who surround them in antebellum Virginia. At first I thought the shifting timeline might annoy me as being too postmodern, but the storytelling is epic and the characters are richly textured and sympathetic.Jones doesn't let anyone get away without blame in this book, but he manages to infuse even the most vile characters with enough motivation and rationalization for their actions. He understands that mostly good people do terrible things - it forces the reader to get out of the paradigm of evil that they've been comfortable falling in to. We are all capable of evil, and its best to know it so you can recognize the signs. Seriously, this book is marvelous. My favorite book I've read this year and I can't recommend it enough.

Jason

Manchester County, Virginia doesn't exist. Never has. After reading The Known World, however, you'd be forgiven if you thought you could take a tour of it's plantations and slave cemetaries on your vacation to colonial Williamsburg. The complicated pre-civil war Southern society that Edward P. Jones creates feels as real and surreal as any factual history of slavery you've read. It was not so much the story of Henry Townsend, a black slave owner, and all the people that his death allows us to meet that engaged me. It was the world, a world where I could taste the soil I might till and the women I might marry and the terrible choices I might be faced with, that put it's claws in me and refused to let go.It took me nearly 2 months to finish the book's 388 pages. It should've been a quick read. It is a fascinating place with peculiar problems and characters I cried for on more than one occasion. It should've been a quick read but I kept asking myself this question: who would I have been? The slave, toiling away in the field? The overseer, unable to see the world for what it truly was? The freed man, working desperately to free the rest of his family? The smart child, taken under the wing of the rich white slave owner and convinced that there was nothing wrong with owning another human being? The broken black man tortured by his family's wealth built on the backs of men and women that look just like me? The slave too proud, too strong, too powerful to let another take his freedom? Who would I have been?Who am I now?In matters of race, there is always that fool's point, usually made by a white person (though not always) that asks,"why aren't you over it, already? Can't we just let it go?" It is a way to end an uncomfortable conversation. The reasons don't matter. I know many a person for which the sticky tar baby of race in America is simply a discussion they can't stick their hands in. It is too difficult. Too raw. Too cloudy to be sure that people will remain friends after an honest chat. The way I feel when I read books like The Known World is my answer. No matter how well-adjusted, how integrated, how loving of my fellow man, how multiculti kumbayah I am, I'm not over it. I can't let it go.This fictional world was very real not all that long ago. It's effects still ripple through our every day. The world I know doesn't exist without it.Highly highly recommended.

Davita Westbrook

Exquisite prose. Fascinating, unique characters. And a unique storytelling style that deftly dances from past, to present to future and back again without losing the reader or sacrificing suspense. An exceptionally well written tale. From a writing perspective, a daunting achievement that may well have me set my pen down for a minute and contemplate my life goal.

Catherine

There is probably an important and interesting story in here somewhere (for example, if it were actually about the widow of a black slave owner trying to run a plantation after her husband's death, as claimed on the book jacket). However, any plot that might exist was buried so deep beneath the convoluted chronology and extraneous characters and details that I decided I didn't care to keep digging for it, and quit on page 198. The author seemed determined to insert every existing anecdote about slavery into one novel. This might have worked better as a compilation of essays or short stories.

Meredith

This book is so great b/c of its ability to express all of the moral complexities of slavery pre-civil war. Duty, religion, morality, justice, law, success, conformity, experience……all contribute to the intricacies of slavery. The main characters revolve around Henry, who is a former slave that upholds an estate of slaves. Other characters are a God-fearing slave owner, a slave owner who falls in love with a black woman and has a child, and an educated black woman. Although rare, I had never known that blacks had owned slaves. It is masterfully written and draws you in, making you imagine what you would think and do during that time…and what you could convince yourself to believe lessening your negative reaction to the idea of slavery (or maybe just not allowing yourself to see slavery’s impact on the individual life as what it really was….crippling). While at the same time, you get a glimpse of what it must have been like to be a slave, from being a woman who is stripped down so that a white man can look at her to see if he wants to buy her and take her away from her family to being physically abused. There are contradictions and “well-meant” things that did not turn out well. This is a great book to digest and discuss. I love a historical, relational book that makes you think!! The author also writes about historical documents and events that allow you to believe it actually happened. “Despite vowing never to own a slave, Skiffington had no trouble doing his job to keep the institution of slavery going, an institution even God himself had sanctioned throughout the Bible. Skiffington had learned from his father how much solace there was in separation God’s law from Caesar’s law. ‘Render your body unto them,’ his father had taught, ‘but know your soul belongs to God.’ As long as Skiffington and Winifred lived within the light that came from God’s law, from the Bible, nothing on earth, not even his duty as a sheriff to the Caesars, could deny them the kingdom of God. ‘We will not own slaves,’ Skiffington promised God, and he promised each morning he went to his knees to pray. Though everyone in the country saw Minerva the wedding present as their property, the Skiffingtons did not feel they owned her, not in the way whites and few blacks owned slaves” (this was written about a young girl taken by her parents that they came to own)“Henry, the law will protect you as a master to your slave, and it will not flinch when it protects you. That protection lasts from here all the way to the death of that property. But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns round and bites you, the law will come to you still, will but it not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed you need. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter.” (Henry goes on to slap his slave right after and say “why don’t you never do what I tell you? N--, you never do. You just do what I tell you from now on.”)“How could anyone, white or not white, think that he could hold on to his land and servants and his future if he thought himself no higher than what he owned.”

BC

** spoiler alert ** Addressing the novel “The Known World,” by Edward Jones, is tough. As a writer and voracious reader, while working my way through the story I found the structure of the novel quite unconventional and unsuccessful—and at times quite irritating—as a means of communicating what might otherwise have been a powerful story with which a reader could in some way connect. And yet when I put down the completed book, I felt I had experienced a compelling tale.In less than 400 pages Jones attempted to tell the story of almost 50 characters; many author’s have trouble successfully spotlighting three or four characters. Jones had on average less than four pages of text to dedicate to each character: any more on any one, and the rest would suffer. (Jones must have understood this to some extent, as he added at the end of the novel a list of characters, including a brief description of each, to assist his readers.) So there already was a multitude of characters, and not much room to say a whole lot about any one of them. Then, it seems Jones took every person’s story, cut each into tiny pieces, mixed them up in a big box, then randomly pulled out fragments and added them to the novel, giving the reader a very disjointed storyline/timeline to follow. Trying to understand who was where, when and how, only detracted from the overall effect the story could have had on me as I read it—the very act of reading it became laborious.Adding to this was Jones’s insistence on inserting so-called present day (for the reader) references. These additions ruined any sense of connection I might have felt existed between the narrator and the story, since it made it apparent that the narrator was here and now (2009, or whenever any reader might open the book) and not even remotely a part of the story or even the setting or era. These snippets only served to detract from the intimacy of the narrator with the story.Hurting the story even further was Jones choice of third person omniscient point of view (POV). With no consistent POV, it was very hard for me to connect or identify with any one character through the entire text. While reading the story, I continued to be disappointed and even irritated at Jones’s method of presentation, right up to the last page.Yet after completion, while still dissatisfied with the final product (I really wanted to KNOW many of the characters, and Jones left me wanting so much more), I found myself contemplating the many characters and plotlines, and realized that while the reading itself was not ‘fun,’ there was still something there.“The Known World” was an intricate story through which Jones created a completely imaginary world. (Jones has stated in several subsequent interviews that he conducted absolutely no research, and that the entire story and every single character, other than actual historical figures, was “crafted in his head.”) And his characters were very consistent. The novel’s title was well chosen: each character acted within the confines of that individual’s known world; very few thought and acted beyond themselves. And yet, all those worlds continually collided—each character in some way was related to, interacted with, or somehow influenced one or more of the others. Jones creation of so many people, and their sometimes tenuous and at other times quite personal ties, was brilliant. Any attempt to plot the relationships and interactions would produce one huge and complex spider web.While completely made up, the plotlines and characters are very believable, based upon what we know of the era, and even upsetting to some, and it all felt very real when I was “in the moment.” While today we know the evils and effects of slavery, Jones was able to present so many characters set perfectly in a time when slavery was both legal and accepted by so many people. Regardless of how any reader may personally feel now, at one time not everyone felt that way. There are many acts that currently are known to be appalling or just outright evil, but at one time were accepted as normal. Thankfully, perspectives change, and we have grown, building upon the knowledge and sentiments of our ancestors. Jones fiction is about such possible forebears, and how some accepted, some rebelled, some pretended and some ran away. Jones instigates numerous emotions through his characters: incredulousness, outrage, sympathy, fear and sadness, to name but a few.In all, the novel grew on me as I was able to let the myriad of fragments come together in my mind well after closing the book. I do believe that the impact might have been greater—and more immediate—if Jones had chosen a more conventional method of storytelling, and limited the number of characters so that each could be more thoroughly developed.

Bonnie

A disquieting book about slaves owning slaves. All kinds of stories woven together make this novel a joy to read. I especially love the changes that Jones' characters make in their lives from the fact that they live everyday. Just as people make adjustments to their lives, especially after severe disappointments, so do Jones' characters -- the ones that don't move, die, either physically or spiritually. Fascinating concept.

Gwendolyn

This was a great book, very well written and an interesting read. Tackling the complex morale issues surrounding slavery from a new perspective, this book delves into the territory of black owners of slaves. Without preaching, the author successfully navigates barbaric treatments and offers a view into the mental justifications and rationalizations. Characters of great strength, courage and resilience are interspersed on both sides of the issue, as are truly terrible individuals.The author continuously introduces new, inter-related characters which means he constantly has to remind us of who someone is. While a bit extraneous, it didn't detract from the book. This isn't a traditional "story book" where you follow someone's life. The author jumps around from past, present and future glimpses to facilitate quick character development. The downside to this was there weren't "cliff hangers" at the end of chapters that kept me reading non-stop. I recommend this highly as a quality book. It definitely makes you think about how the human psyche can be manipulated, and how laws of the land and society can be used to justify behaviors.

Dana

This book was all over the place! Thus, I decided to write a review. After, I finished reading the book; I re-read the book jacket's cover and realized that this scatter brain approach to writing was intentional. I originally selected this book because, I thought it would be somewhat similar to the book "someone's knows my name" which I really liked. I was also curious about exploring what it may have been like for free black people to own other black people as slaves. I don't think the author did enough to explore the theme of blacks owning other black people as slaves in my opinion. The writing on the topic was superficial and just skimmed the surface. Throughout reading the book, I would pause and read the endorsements on the back of the book, and wonder how did he win an award for this book? Why did so many people feel that this book was good? If I am honest, the book is NOT poorly written. I did manage to get through the book, and finally I was intrigued enough to wonder what happens next. The book does provide a good fictional glimpse of the many players and complexities that probably existed during that time period. However, that is the best that I can say about this book.I won't say that I disliked the book, because I managed to finish it. It was just another lackluster, borderline disappointing read.

Rosey

Basically - a book about slavery in the South. I enjoy those kind of thing, especially The Secret Lives of Bees, but with this one, it felt like the book had no point. While I was reading, I kept on going "what did I just read? Am I really reading/understanding this book?" and kept on referring to the back cover of the book. No. The story was simply what I read. O.......K! Then ugh. I HATE leaving a book unread, so I kept on forcing myself to read thru the whole book. Finally the misery I was putting myself through ended, and UGH! The storyline. The author kept on jumping around the timeline too much - and honestly - I would describe this book as a glimpse of the lives of slaves in the south, but with a blah storyline. However this book has won a pultizer prize. EH!? Anyone out there who has read this book? Your opinions??However like always, we learn from books. What I got out of this book was a new knowledge I never came upon, that black people owned black slaves.They even buy their own family members, and the slaves were considered as properties, including family. Hmm... History is richier than we will ever know or think of.

Chris McClinch

This is a book I wouldn't have gotten past page 50 of had I not been reading it for a book club. While the author clearly did his research and posed a fascinating premise--free blacks owning slaves in 1840s Virginia--there wasn't much of a story or a key character or set of characters for you to hang your hat on. As such, I found the book to be much more of a slog than I would have expected with such a fascinating premise. This is one of those books where I want to take the author--who is clearly talented--aside and remind him that the novel is primarily a storytelling medium, and that if you're not telling a story, you're breaking your basic contract with the reader.

karen

there is that old adage that a good book will tell you how to read it. and i have no idea to whom that should be attributed, only that my undergrad professors seemed to have been born to quote that thought endlessly: in my gothic lit class, my enlightenment class, my victorian lit class... the african and irish lit professors mostly kept their mouths shut on the subject. but the rest - hoo boy - did they love to drag that old chestnut out... and it makes sense, to a certain degree. but this book doesn't tell you how to read it so much as it presents itself to the reader, like a fat man in a speedo lolling around on an undersized towel saying, "look at me ladies, you like it?? this is what you get!!" it almost demands that you read it and like it.but i was disobedient.every sentence, every paragraph, seemed to be trying to contain multitudes. and i am a fan of "thick" writing, but the manner in which this book presented itself quickly soured on me. there were too many stories or episodes ending with, "years from now, when celia was on her deathbed, she would think back to her third year of marriage",in a scene where she has yet to even be married, or right after two characters are introduced to each other, "this would be the last time they would meet until the hailstorm of aught-six" - and i am making up all the names and situations here, but you get an idea of the shape of my complaints. it's constant foreshadowing and some of the foreshadowing is just teasing, as the events never come to pass in the novel itself. it's like sitting down to tea with a god in his dotage, rambling and making connections only he can understand; seeing the past and future simultaneously."hey, karen, didn't you really like that kjaerstaad trilogy, where he basically did what you are complaining about here??"yeah, what? so? shut up - isn't it past your bedtime??yeah, but sure, that's true. but for some reason, it bothered me here. all i wanted was a straightforward linear narrative about a fascinating subject matter: free black men and women who owned slaves. when i read roll of thunder, hear my cry last summer, the whole transition period between slavery and freedom really excited my brainparts. i dunno. and mister jones was a real sweetheart when he came for the new yorker festival and i waited in line to get a book signed for a friend and i really wanted to like it because it seems like a nice fat sprawling sweeping story the way i like, but i just got lost in the names and the timeline and my confusion turned into apathy. it's like this guy you date who seems really perfect - he is smart and looks like gabriel byrne and he dotes on you and everything is fun and on paper it all looks great and you know you should really like him, but he just doesn't make you laugh so you run off and leave him for a rockstar. you know? because i feel like i should like this one because it is award-winning, and my experience with the african-american novel is middling (although i love the african novel, the west indian novel and the afro-canadian novel - go figure) so i feel like as someone who appreciates literature in general, i should totally love this. but it wasn't there for me.oh, chris wilson, i am sorry. now you are going to want full custody because your baby is being raised among heathens. years from now, when my and chris wilson's book-baby became the mayor of littleton, he would read this review and a tear of sorrow would come to his eye at my short-sightedness.

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