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

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Garth

"In its first 200 or so pages, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World resembles nothing so much as a story cycle. The impatient reader may begin to wonder where these vignettes of slave life. However, Jones’ leisurely pace and measured prose eventually reveal a unity of purpose, a cumulative power that overwhelms in two ways: gradually, then all of a sudden. Frankly, The Known World is the best new American novel I’ve read since Jeffrey Eugenides'Middlesex. A broad range of influences are visible in Jones’ portrait of antebellum life in Virginia—Faulkner in its conception, Hemingway in its restraint, Garcia Marquez in its use of foreshadowing, Toni Morrison in its supernatural power, Cormac McCarthy in its hallucinatory violence. However, one senses that Jones is his own man, an iconoclast. Notice, for example, the way Jones’ prose and acute historical sense tap into a canon overlooked by other American novelists: the slave narrative. Far more than Beloved, a book to which this one will doubtless be compared, The Known World draws on and continues the work of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and other early African American writers. From these authors’ narrative, Jones has learned to write about slavery from the inside, so that it does not seem the sole determinant of his characters’ lives. Amid the oppressive climate of the fictional Manchester County, the slaves and former slaves depicted in The Known World find and lose love, fight, experience spiritual awakenings and spiritual deaths, venture out into the unknown world, and lead interior lives as rich as any Henry James heroine’s. Paradoxically, Jones’ matter-of-fact view of slavery—and his naturalistic-bordering-on-deadpan depictions of torture, slave commerce, slave insurance, and so on—make the peculiar institution seem all the more terrible—as though, undercutting against the moral outrage of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Beloved is an inclination to melodrama that suggests that something as outrageous as slavery can’t be real. It is, Jones’ book reminds us, and readers will emerge from it grateful for its author’s wisdom. "from hace.blogspot.com

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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".

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