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

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.

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.

Sonia

Very complex themes and characters. Historical fiction set in virginia, era 1800's. The tale of former slaves being slave owners. Learned some facts, very fascinating. Draw back: hard to remenber all the characters and how they are inter-relate.

Aberjhani

Edward P. Jones' Bold Vision of "The Known World"This story would have been exciting enough based only on the fact that Edward P. Jones so boldly took the antebellum novel to a place it has never gone before; namely, to black slave-owner Henry Townsend's plantation in Manchester, Virginia. There, the "Known World" is wholly different from what one might expect. But this seemingly obviously absurd anomaly of U.S. history, wherein black masters owned black slaves, doesn’t stop with that rarely discussed fact. It is further illuminated by Jones' flights into the fantastic with observations of sentient lightning, children with the personalities of bitter grandparents, and, comically enough, freak chickens. Mixed within this potent literary brew are some of the most original and dynamic characters, male and female, ever to step into the pages of American fiction. In fact, one of more remarkable features of Jones’ amazing novel is his portrayal of how specific individuals sometimes managed to exploit the institution of slavery in order to indulge their own private needs, quirks, or agendas.It's true that the alternating biblical density and epic expansiveness of details and events with which Jones builds his narrative can at times prove challenging. However, this same aesthetic ultimately delivers a triumphant satisfaction. Jones' Pulitzer--and any other awards received for this novel--was well earned and deserved. by Author-Poet Aberjhani author of "Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance" (Facts on File Library of American History) and "The Wisdom Of W.E.B. Du Bois" (Wisdom Library)

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.

Tom Mockensturm

This is the best book I have read all summer. This story contains the interwoven stories of the people connected to a black farmer and former slave and the chaos and strategy that occurs after his death. I have not read a book this powerful and enlightening about the effects of slavery on all those involved since "Beloved". Pay attention to the character Moses and how he has changed by the end of the story. Jones used this character to symbolize "what slavery had done".

Kelly

The Known World might be a little dry for those less experianced with the so called "droning" novels, but for those of us who like to really suck on the marrow of a tome, this one is to keep close to the heart. At first I wondered why it had been given the Pulitzer Prize. The first few parts of the book were rather dry and lacking in salt and sustenance to me. But the farther I got in, the harder it was to get out. I moved with the characters, and somehow, they moved in me. A well thought out work, one to read to an attentive child that wishes to learn more about the hardships in this world.

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.

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.

JoLee

Edward P. Jones's book, The Known World tells of the lives of characters living in the fictional county of Manchester, Virginia in 1855. At the center of the story is the plantation of Henry Townsend, a freed slave now with slaves of his own, and the conflicts and moral dilemmas facing the small group of slave-owning free blacks in the county. Other characters in the story also face conflicting emotions (whether they know it or not) about slavery. For example, William Robbins, the most powerful man in the county with one of the largest plantations, is in love with a black woman and dotes on their two children. Also, Sheriff John Skiffington pledges to never own a slave, yet his job depends on maintaining the status-quo. This is an interesting, poignant, and somewhat disturbing story. One of the best things about it is Jones's language and not-quite-linear story-telling. I felt like I was reading pieces of a puzzle that only slowly and methodically came together.

Shannon

I still cannot fathom why this book won awards. I wil grant that it is built around an interesting premise but for me there were just too many flaws. There are a lot of characters that are hard to keep track and not one did I care about and want to know what happened and in fact could not toil my way to the end of the book. When asked at my bookclub if I wanted to know what happened to various characters I actually found that I still didn't care and couldn't even remember them (and I had gone over 3/4 of the way through the book). The writing was choppy with differeng POVs that change too frequently. The lengthy recitations of family trees, population statistics and other historical fodder further interrupt the flow and did not add anything to the narrative and took me out of the story to think about the author and why he felt he needed to cram that in. Perhaps to show off his research?I think there are much better books out there that deal with American slavery.There was the odd pearl of a sentence that was well written and poignant but for me there was too much work to be done to harvest the pearls.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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