Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003)

I was so glad I found this in my library. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and was also one of Oprah's ten books she chose that made the most impact on her in the past ten years (latest issue of Oprah magazine). So I knew it would be thought-provoking.

The story follows various characters in Manchester County, Virginia in the mid 1800's, a time when white landowners had black slaves. What I didn't know is that free black landowners sometimes also had slaves, and one of the main characters in the book is Henry Townsend, a black farmer with a large estate and many slaves. Henry has done well due to the good graces of the County's most powerful white landowner, William Robbins, who allowed Henry's father to first purchase his own freedom and then his wife's and finally his son's. Before he had enough money to free his son, Robbins made Henry his personal valet and taught him much of what made him able to be successful when he finally had his own estate.

We become acquainted with so many characters: white, black, Native American; free, enslaved; educated, uneducated; those with values and morals and those with no scruples. This book also gives an incredible close view of life in those times: how people ate, worked, interacted, loved and hated. We see the lack of freedom of the slaves but also the other "second-hand citizens" of those times, i.e women, Native Americans, homosexuals. The portrayal of this society is also surprisingly violent, especially the conclusion of the novel.

The story is elegantly woven and tips back and forth between many characters, different points in time, and various points of view. Sometimes it is difficult to remember which character is which - as a reader you must be attentive with this book. But it is well worth it as towards the end you have a wide view of the humanity and inhumanity in Manchester County. I do agree that it is thought-provoking, eye-opening and very well written, and I learned a lot reading it.


Anonymous said...

IT IS A VERY NICE SUGGESTION, THANK YOU LOTS! ........................................

Hannah Stoneham said...

This sounds very interesting indeed - and I like the audacious title! I am shamefully thin on my American history unfortunately although I have picked up a little about slavery when living briefly in Trinidad last year.

thank you for recommending this book and a pleasure to discover your blog