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The Known World Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 14, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

Set in Manchester County, Virginia, 20 years before the Civil War began, Edward P. Jones's debut novel, The Known World, is a masterpiece of overlapping plot lines, time shifts, and heartbreaking details of life under slavery. Caldonia Townsend is an educated black slaveowner, the widow of a well-loved young farmer named Henry, whose parents had bought their own freedom, and then freed their son, only to watch him buy himself a slave as soon as he had saved enough money. Although a fair and gentle master by the standards of the day, Henry Townsend had learned from former master about the proper distance to keep from one's property. After his death, his slaves wonder if Caldonia will free them. When she fails to do so, but instead breaches the code that keeps them separate from her, a little piece of Manchester County begins to unravel. Impossible to rush through, The Known World is a complex, beautifully written novel with a large cast of characters, rewarding the patient reader with unexpected connections, some reaching into the present day. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

In a crabbed, powerful follow-up to his National Book Award-nominated short story collection (Lost in the City), Jones explores an oft-neglected chapter of American history, the world of blacks who owned blacks in the antebellum South. His fictional examination of this unusual phenomenon starts with the dying 31-year-old Henry Townsend, a former slave-now master of 33 slaves of his own and more than 50 acres of land in Manchester County, Va.-worried about the fate of his holdings upon his early death. As a slave in his youth, Henry makes himself indispensable to his master, William Robbins. Even after Henry's parents purchase the family's freedom, Henry retains his allegiance to Robbins, who patronizes him when he sets up shop as a shoemaker and helps him buy his first slaves and his plantation. Jones's thorough knowledge of the legal and social intricacies of slaveholding allows him to paint a complex, often startling picture of life in the region. His richest characterizations-of Robbins and Henry-are particularly revealing. Though he is a cruel master to his slaves, Robbins is desperately in love with a black woman and feels as much fondness for Henry as for his own children; Henry, meanwhile, reads Milton, but beats his slaves as readily as Robbins does. Henry's wife, Caldonia, is not as disciplined as her husband, and when he dies, his worst fears are realized: the plantation falls into chaos. Jones's prose can be rather static and his phrasings ponderous, but his narrative achieves crushing momentum through sheer accumulation of detail, unusual historical insight and generous character writing.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 388 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad; 1st edition (August 14, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060557540
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060557546
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (432 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #336,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Edward P. Jones won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was nominated for the National Book Award for his debut collection of stories, Lost in the City.

Customer Reviews

The story and the characters were very well developed.
Nothing in the opening pages prepares the reader for the mindless details of irrelevant history that would assail him in the later chapters, though.
I found myself having to go back and skim what I had just read to figure out what time frame the book was in at each part.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

334 of 344 people found the following review helpful By Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader on September 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Edward P. Jones tackles a difficult subject with depth and courage. Unlike other reviews listed here, I did not find his prose difficult, but enjoyed its richness and color, and found "The Known World" filled with flawed and genuine people of all races who grapple with slavery-America's "peculiar institution"-in a way that will surprise and compel readers.
Mourners come to Manchester County, Virginia to bury Henry Townsend and comfort his widow Caldonia. Henry was only 31 years old, a successful landowner and the owner of 33 slaves. He was also black, and a former slave himself. His human property learned from the start that working for a black master was no different from working for a white-or an Indian, for that matter. But they hold out the tiniest shred of hope that Caldonia, who was born free, will free them.
Henry's father Augustus bought his own freedom from his owner, Bill Robbins. He then worked to buy his wife, and then his son. But Henry always felt more affinity with Robbins than he did with his own family, shocking his parents when he buys his first slave. There are a number of black and Cherokee slave owners in the area who look on slaves with perhaps even more dispassionate eyes than do their white neighbors. "The legacy," Henry's mother-in-law calls his slaves when Caldonia briefly considers manumitting them. "Don't throw away the legacy."
I have never found a book that looks at slavery like "The Known World" does. Throw your preconceived notions out the window and be prepared to be completely pulled into a world where, no matter the characters' race, nothing is black and white.
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278 of 292 people found the following review helpful By O. Brown HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 15, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

The Known World was unique among fiction books I have read in the last twenty years or so. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I would not call it an easy read, because it was some work to keep track of all of the different characters, but nevertheless, so very well worth it. Despite the work, it was entertaining. Like other reviewers, it kept me up at night, and kept me reading.

The book caused me to wonder how I would behave had I the same cultural background as the various characters in the book---the white slave owners, black slave owners, the black slaves. I had always thought before that I "of course" would be against slavery, would fight for rights for all races, and absolutely never do anything so repulsive as to own slaves. I wondered how anyone ever could! The Known World opened my eyes to how this could happen, and how easily one of those slaveowners---black or white---could have been me. Or how easily I could have been a slave. It also provided insight into the psychological world of the slave. All of this was done by showing, not telling, so the reading was more of a powerful emotional experience rather than an intellectual experience.

What made this so different for me is that I picked this book soley upon the Amazon reviews and rankings. I had no inherent interest in American history or race relations or the Civil War era, but this book GOT me interested. I think that the only person who would not enjoy this book would be the person who is not open or interested in challenging themselves, not interested in thinking, or afraid to find out about or explore the dark side of the human experience.
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41 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Michael Jones VINE VOICE on August 3, 2004
Format: Paperback
Some of the things I liked about The Known World:

* The chapter titles. Partly just because I enjoy trying to predict what they mean before reading the chapter, partly because I believe they reveal what the author thinks is important.

* The freshly unconventional non-linear narrative style. Jones employs it in this novel as well as many of his short stories.

* The fact that this novel's technical aspects (grammar, usage, etc...) anger purists.

* The controversial subject matter (freed slaves as slave owners), of which many astute antebellum history scholars may already be familiar but of which I was not.

* Most of the vast array of characters, like Alice for example, who was kicked in the head by a mule and rendered incoherent. She becomes the novel's transcendental figure, relegated to wandering the plantation's surrounding woods at night and chanting nonsensical verse.

Some of the things I disliked about The Known World:

* Too many characters. I just couldn't keep them all straight in my, perhaps, enfeebled mind.

* Predictable ending. Jones, I'm guessing, tries a twist, but it's nothing you haven't seen (or read) before.

So, as you can see, I liked more than I disliked about this book. I would definitely recommend it to curious readers. I'm not so sure I agree with its Pulitzer Prize status, but if it attracts more readers then that's a good thing.
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59 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Shepherd VINE VOICE on September 28, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Blacks owning blacks is not something that one normally considers when one thinks of the conditions in the South prior to the Civil War. But, though rare, it did exist, and this novel explores one such case, and by doing so helps provide a more complete picture of the Known World, another window into that era and by reflection a vision of the current world.

Perhaps most noticeable at the beginning of the book is the style it is told in. This is not a linear narrative with a well-defined protagonist and a clear-cut set of problems. Instead, Jones jumps from character to character, backward and forward in time, sometimes with his focus on an individual, sometimes reading more like an academic treatise documenting historical occurrences - often doing so even within a single paragraph. Because of this style and the sheer number of characters that are introduced or casually mentioned (over a hundred of them), it is very difficult to get quickly engrossed in this work. Not until almost a hundred fifty pages in does a coherent picture emerge and the characters coalesce from names into being people.

But what does finally emerge is a picture of just how 'free' blacks could really be in that time. Though legally able to buy and sell others, the rights of this miniscule class of people did not extend to the full protection of the law - although as clearly shown here, it didn't extend to many others as well: the poor, the half-breeds, even women as a class. Entry into 'society' is clearly denied, even though some of them were well respected for their skills and general level-headedness. And they always had to carry their papers proving their freedom - in a world where only a few were literate, this is quite an irony as well as being degrading.
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