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The Known World by Edward P. Jones

February 13, 2010

This fortnight, for the Alphabet in Historical Fiction Challenge at Historical Tapestry, the letter is: — for Edward P. Jones The Known World

From the Publisher: Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusual mentor — William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia’s Manchester County. Under Robbins’s tutelage, Henry becomes proprietor of his own plantation — as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart at their plantation: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend estate, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave “speculators” sell free black people into slavery, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years.

An ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges seamlessly between the past and future and back again to the present, The Known World weaves together the lives of freed and enslaved blacks, whites, and Indians — and allows all of us a deeper understanding of the enduring multidimensional world created by the institution of slavery.

I have had this Pulitzer Prize winning novel on my shelf for a while, and this seemed like the perfect time to tackle it. However, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll finish it on time. So I’ll just talk a bit about the book — watch this space for a full review. 🙂

The Known World takes place in my corner of the world, the mountains of Virginia, in the mid-nineteenth century. It presents a facet of slavery I have never seen written about before — black slaves owned by a free black man. Henry Townsend was bought out of slavery by his father, who earned money to buy his own freedom and eventually liberated his wife and child. Henry’s father, who dedicated much of his life to working for his family’s freedom, disapproves of his son’s decision to own slaves. Now Henry lies dying, and everybody’s lives are about to change.

I am only about 50 pages into this book. I am finding it somewhat difficult reading. The author writes from an omniscient point of view, reminiscent of Victorian literature, sometimes zooming in to look at the world through one character’s eyes. It shifts around in time, and among many characters — I’m finding it a bit hard to keep up. 🙂

However, I can see that it is likely to be worth the effort. The novel offers a multifaceted view of slavery which I find fascinating. This is no cut and dry Uncle Tom’s Cabin with one-dimensional characters. And already the characters and situations I experienced through the book have stayed in my thoughts.

If anyone has read this — or other works by this author — I’d love to hear what you think!

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