With The Known World, Edward P. Jones created a masterpiece, the kind of novel that brings much needed credibility to the Pulitzer Prize judges who named it Best Novel in 2004. The novel is set in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, some twenty years before the start of the Civil War and it focuses on an aspect of slavery that I knew very little about beforehand, the fact that there were freed blacks in the South who were themselves slave owners.
I found myself completely immersed in the world that Jones recreated, a world that was seldom pretty, one that was filled instead with flawed characters who reflected their upbringing and the times in which they lived. This is a multi-generational novel in which the author takes great care to explain how each of the characters came to be the person he ultimately was but it is not always told in strict chronological order. There are both flashbacks and jumps far into the future that add depth and historical context to the story and make this a memorable book.
The story centers on the Henry Townsend plantation, a plantation of some 33 slaves owned by a former slave whose father bought him out of slavery when Henry was a boy. Augustus, Henry's father, was a skilled furniture maker who was allowed by his owner to pocket a portion of what he earned building furniture for area plantation owners. Augustus accumulated enough money to buy his own freedom and finally saved enough to later buy the same for his wife and son. It was to the great disappointment of Augustus, a disappointment that almost separated father from son for good, that Henry eventually became a slave owner.
It is upon Henry's sudden death that the Townsend plantation is thrown into a chaos from which it never recovers. Caldonia, Henry's widow, did not have the discipline required to profitably run a plantation of 33 slaves while maintaining the distance from them required to keep their respect. She became so close to her overseer that he became bold enough to demand his own freedom, something that she denied him, causing him to lose control of himself and the other slaves for whom he had day-to-day responsibility. Some of those slaves began to run for their freedom, alone or in groups of two or three, resulting in tragedy for those left behind, both black and white.
The Known World is not a book that should be read quickly. Its story is told through the eyes of numerous characters from several families, black and white, and it can be difficult to follow until the reader feels familiar with all the names and relationships. It is one of those novels that suddenly "click" for the reader to the point that he finds himself totally taken by the world that the author has created. I regretted having turned the last page, finding myself wondering what became of the next generation and hoping that Jones will one day tell me.
Rated at: 5.0