The Known World

ISBN: 096513671X
ISBN 13: 9780965136716
By: Edward P. Jones

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About this book

One of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, The Known World is a daring and ambitious work by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones.The Known World 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. Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all its moral complexities.

Reader's Thoughts

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.

Patrick

Books can be difficult for various reasons, and this one is difficult for some quite unusual reasons. It is not linguistically oblique, there is nothing much that is mysterious about the nature of the plot, and for the most part the action of the story takes place in a straightforward and realistic manner. On a word by word basis, the thing makes sense. What complicates matters is the author’s remarkable sense of the novel as a complete artistic vision. This is one of those rare and special works in which everything starts out in a kind of mess but which, as you read on, slowly resolves itself into a picture with depth, colour, light and shade, and with remarkable internal consistency. The novel is set in Manchester County, a fictional region in Virginia, sometime in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. More specifically, it is set in and around the world of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and ex-slave whose parents bought his freedom when he was a child. After learning a trade and making a little money, Townsend buys his own plantation and slaves; this might surprise modern readers, but we are given to understand that he was not unusual, and that he acted entirely according to the laws and culture of his times. However, Henry’s death comes quite early in the pages of this book, and so the main action comes in recalling the story of his youth and how he came to his position in life, then what happened after he died when his wife, Caldonia, came into possession of the farm and its property (human and otherwise).At first I found all this quite difficult to follow. Within the first fifty or so pages, the author introduces a large number of different characters, and is not only fastidious about charting their relationships to one another but also in introducing elements of both their past and future stories in asides which often seem to have little relevance to immediate events. I read somewhere that there is no present tense in this book, which seems to me like a perfect way of describing it: for much of the first two thirds of the text, the writing is unhinged in time, jumping from moment to moment across years in a way which frequently seems inscrutable.It’s not until relatively late in the book that the thing starts to cohere. Eventually, things settle down a little, and the true pattern of the author’s wizardry starts to form broad arcs across the pages. I can’t stop thinking of one particular moment, one really awful thing that happens in the story, that in any other book would perhaps seem like an unnecessary act of cruelty only perpetrated against an admirable character so that they have a chance to seem further ennobled. But such is the effort here on the part of the author to develop the history and motivations of both the victim and the perpetrator over the course of tens and hundreds of pages that when this horrible thing happens, it has the immediate, painful quality of lived experience: it somehow seems both inevitable (that such a person should do such a thing) and by chance (that it should happen to this person, at that moment, that night).Leaps across the immediate chronology of a character’s life in the course of a plot are perhaps not all that strange for a historical novel, but what makes this book more unusual still is that it frequently describes the final fates of even the most insignificant people within its pages. Some of these descriptions are the length of a throwaway sentence — a kidnapped slave girl is casually mentioned as later becoming the first black woman to achieve a Phd in America, for example — while others are spelled out in details dropped like breadcrumbs across the breadth of the book. It’s a postmodern touch which never lets the reader forget that this is a novel framed with the ultimate benefit of educated hindsight, a kind of tacit acknowledgement of the godlike power with which the author determines the fates of these characters. That doesn’t mean that anyone is due a happy ending more than anyone else, and the slaves who eventually achieve emancipation and some kind of extra chance at life are rare compared to those who are killed or who die suddenly or who quietly, simply disappear. But almost everyone gets an ending of some kind, and it’s usually one which recognises that, rich or poor, free or otherwise, these were just human beings who were hated and feared and loved and missed in varying degrees.One last thing that’s worth mentioning is the author’s own intrusions into the text in the form of historical references and citations. Often a detail regarding local law or a particularly intriguing set of statistics are presented as fact, and if it hadn’t been for the brief interview with Jones at the end of my edition, I would probably have accepted these as all being true. But they aren’t — as far as I know, they are all invented. Personally, I didn’t find this offensive, but I can understand how some might find it problematic given that we still live in times when people would still deny or underestimate the scale of the atrocity which formed the foundations of modern American society. Could a person read this and accept its account as entirely truthful; and if they did, what would they think if they found out it was fiction? What else might they come to doubt? I don’t know that I can answer that. My own perspective is one of admiration at the craft involved to create something so utterly convincing. I don’t personally believe in moral or immoral books; to paraphrase Wilde, they’re either written well or poorly, and in any medium there can be no accounting for the vagaries of taste and prejudice. Perhaps it would do better to simply assume the best from our readers and our writers, and leave the rest open to interpretation.

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!

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.

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.

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.

Nancy

Great characters; I knew them and got invested in them as people right from the start, even though there were so many of them, and the story was well crafted and compelling. Deserved the Pulitzer.

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.

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".

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

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.

Anne Sanow

I'm going to have to rave a bit, because this is one of the best books I've read in the past ten years.Jones packs in all the historical detail you could want, and of course he's hit on a subject--black slaveowners--that in and of itself is tabloid-sensational. Where lesser writers might lean too hard on the sensational aspect (or rely on it to bolster an otherwise weak narrative), Jones works it into a compelling and powerful story.What makes it so powerful is a mix of fascinating characters who are woven into a series of overlapping plotlines. For me it's the structuring that is so brilliant (geek alert: I actually diagrammed the time shifts in the chapters as an exercise, to see when and how Jones yoked the whole thing together). This less than linear approach might be frustrating to those who just want things to be straightforward, but stick with it: the shifts provide suspense as well as texture, and they propel more than one storyline at once. They do all come together, trust me.I also admire the overarching authorial voice in the novel, which certainly leans toward the formal, but also comes across as aware of the history it's grappling with: here and there Jones projects his voice forward for a moment, or seemingly digresses with factual material and research. Again it's all part of the tapestry and the mix, and I also think that the level of narrative awareness (which never disengages long enough to derail anything) adds another layer to the very idea of history--making the whole historical and contemporary both.And for those of you who can do without all of the above writerly blather (a thousand pardons), you'll find in this book characters who are engaging, ignorant, cruel, earnest, sympathetic, tragic, hopeful, flawed--in short, complicated. Halfway through you'll be fighting off the impulse to skip ahead to learn everyone's fate.Finally, I'll say that this book isn't perfect--there are aspects of what I've described above that sometimes don't work: narrative turns that do seem pointless digressions, a character or two a bit stereotypical or annoying. No matter. This book aims high, as brilliant works of art do, and the result is nothing short of amazing.

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)

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.

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