[Review] The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Author: Edward P. Jones
Publisher: Amistad, Harper Collins 2003
Theme: Black free men owning white slaves, slavery in Virginia.
Rating: 4 Stars
Won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2003.
The Known World won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2004
Won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2005
The Known World, is foremost a story of slavery in the state of Virginia before the Civil War. Most of the history of slavery we read about is white ownership of black slaves. Until I read The Known World, I did not know free blacks had owned black slaves. It is both shocking and depressing. Slavery in itself is shocking and depressing, compile that with their own people who had once been slaves who then became slave masters, it's beyond my comprehension. The Known World explores in story both white slave masters and black slave masters, included are the patrollers (white men who patrolled looking for run-away slaves).
The main characters are:
Henry Townsend and his wife Caldonia Townsend, free blacks who owned slaves. Early in the story Mr. Townsend becomes sick and dies. His death creates havoc on his wife and slaves, there is a struggle as to how to maintain order. The people are insecure and troubled about what will happen.
Moses is the slave-overseer for Mr. Townsend. Moses has a wife and son.
A strange slave woman named Alice. She wanders at night, speaks to imagined people, sings ethereal songs.
A slave family-Elias and his wife Celeste, and their children. Throughout most of the story Celeste is pregnant.
Loretta, a slave.
Sheriff Skiffington and Deputy Counsel, white men who hunt down run-away slaves.
I've read where some reviewers disliked the disconnected or disjointed feel of the story. I've thought about this because I too noticed it. I feel the disconnect or disjointed feel was done on purpose by the author, it is a reflection of how the characters feel in the story, further it is a reflection of slavery. The slaves lived a disconnected life from what a normal, healthy, functioning, happy life could be. They lived a disconnected life from the ability to make independent decisions. They lived a disconnected life from being able to live with and expect to continue to live with their beloved families (many slaves were ripped away from their families and sold to other slave masters, never seeing their families again). They lived a disconnected life away from where and how their ancestors had lived. They were disconnected Americans, living in America, yet NOT given the freedoms of Americans.
A second negative point I've heard reviewers remark of, "this is a depressing story". Gosh, is slavery a happy thing? I should not even need to explain this remark, and I won't.
The Known World is meant to rattle its reader. Shake us. Send an electric bolt into our mind and heart. Slavery was a horrible-horrible thing and it does not matter who the slave master was, black or white, in either situation slavery was and is wrong. There is a moment in the story when a black woman "tries" to explain why she had white slaves. She said the law had said it was okay. What about the law of conscious? For some, the voice of conscious is loud. For others it's a whisper.
I cannot say this is the best book I've read and that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Further, I don't think that it was written with this intent. It is a book I'll not forget. The echo of its characters will stay with me.