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The Known World
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335 of 345 people found the following review helpful
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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279 of 293 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified 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.

Because of the complexity of the book, as far as the feelings of the characters, the layers of meaning, and the strong impact, I know that I will read this book again and again, and am therefore glad that I spent the money to get it in hardback. It is well worth the money, and is a beautiful "rough cut" book. I have thought about its message again and again since reading it; I would call it haunting, thought-provoking, disturbing, and honest.

*****
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41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
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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60 of 64 people found the following review helpful
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. Perhaps most disturbing was the incident of Augustus Townsend, who purchased his own freedom and then that of his wife and son, respected as one of the best furniture makers in the county, who is sold back into slavery not for any malfeasance on his part, but merely due to the malice of a 'slave patroller' - and the only action taken against the patroller is a 'talking to'.
Conditions of that time are shown almost as a sidelight to the story: the prevalence of diseases now unheard of, the very short life expectancy, working hours from before dawn to after dark, the casual attitude towards worker injuries - highlighted by the 'insurance' policy sold to the wife of Henry Townsend after his death.

The climax of this novel does not come as any surprise, as Jones has left multiple clues and forshadowings throughout the earlier portions of the work, but it is extremely depressing, pointing out in no uncertain terms just how inhumane all too many people are, and how little an individual can do to change his own circumstances.

Though clearly well-researched and with a powerful story at its heart, I found the style to be quite a detriment to the story's overall impact. Though the mosaic formed by this style does eventually become a large picture of that time and place, it necessarily means there is no tight focus, and difficulty in presenting any depth of character. This lessened my emotional involvement in the main characters, and their fates never quite got beyond 'an historical occurrence' to become 'a real event' - a pity, as with a more direct style I think this could have been a great book.

--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
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68 of 74 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Edward P. Jone's novel, The Known World, is a story about the social and moral boundaries that were woven into the fabric of those living in Virginia in the time of slavery. The author creates a clear and insightful look into the lives of individuals whose lives were bound with the reality of slavery. The focus of the story are black slave owners and black slaves. While many are familiar with this period of time and the issues involved, Edward P. Jones sheds new light on the issue of black slave owners.
The perspectives of the slave owners, the slaves and as well as the freed blacks (those who accepted the fact of slavery and those who opposed it) are all explored. The thoughts of white slave owners and the whites who did not own slaves are also an integral part of this book.
The story seemed to lack a fiery passion to it that I thought it would have. I have realised that this technique is a critical part of the style the author used to tell the story. The lack of passion relays the feeling that these people had accepted their KNOWN WORLD, that slavery was a part of the fabric of their lives and was an acknowledged normal aspect of life. No matter who you were, you aspired to become a slaveowner because it signified that you were successful and deserving of respect.
It begs the question, what in our own KNOWN WORLD do we accept that in years to come will be viewed very differently by future generations. The story is a thought provoking, eye opening work by Edward P. Jones.
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72 of 79 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
First off, this novel is not written in a lineal fashion. At times the author jumps decades, even a century into the future. It took me a while to warm to the style, but not only does it work, it is the way one person would tell the a story about another person: "He did this and this. Little did we know that he would become a ..."
There are few authors who can portray characters as well as Mr. Jones. I would put him in Steinbeck's class. The reader gets to know all the characters in this book well. At first, I thought Mr. Jones was merely introducing the people who populate this book (and there is a significant population of characters). I then realized that this was what the book was all about - the lives of these people in Madison County Virginia. And what interesting lives they were.
The central theme is slave-owning blacks. The slave-owners, white and black, are followed as are free blacks and free whites. At the center is the plantation and its denizens of a slave-owning black named Henry. He was bought out of slavery as a boy by his father who now disapproves of his son's holding slaves. When Henry dies, his widow tries unsuccessfully to hold the plantation together with what she perceives is the benevolence that would allow her to follow her husband to heaven. Heaven accepted benevolent slave-owners. One ned not free his slaves to get through the Pearly Gates. It should be noted that some of the descriptions of this book portray the central theme as this disintegration. However, it comes near at the end of the book and is almost an afterthought.
The heart of this book is the tenuous intertwining of whites and blacks in the ante-bellum south. Rather than the usual handling of these tensions, this book adds the compelling component of blacks owning blacks. This addition of a fourth class of southern citizen after rich whites, poor whites and slaves enriches this book and makes it a five star read. The rich character portraits carry the story-line rather than vice versa.
I strongly recommend this book. It was wonderfully written, the characters hauntingly unforgettable and the topic a little known one that is compelling.
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40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2005
Format: Paperback
One of the many remarkable aspects of Edward P. Jones's remarkable novel is its style of storytelling. Set in the fictional county of Manchester, Virginia, in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, the core of "The Known World" traces the plight of the thirty-three slaves belonging to Henry Townsend, a free black man who dies at the opening of the narrative, and his widow's attempt to keep together Henry's "legacy." But this central plot is surrounded, punctuated, and jumbled by dozens of other stories, past and future, regarding Henry's former owner, his teacher, his neighbors, and his parents.

Adopting a voice suggestive of Faulkner or Welty--but still uniquely his own--Jones sometimes sounds like an elderly man reminiscing about the old days while sitting on the porch--interrupting himself with scattered and random tangents, incapable of sticking to the main story but always fascinating his listeners. Often morsels from three or four different tales will be interwoven within the same paragraph. At other times, the author's phrasing recalls the cadence of the best Old Testament chronicles, especially the captivity narrative in the book of Exodus.

And in still other places, Jones adopts the impassive tone of a modern-day historian, referring to wholly invented academic sources or commenting on the descendants of the book's characters decades later. "It was in the South that Anderson came upon material he would later put together in a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors. . . . Only seven of those particular pamphlets survived until the late twentieth century. Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994. . ." (I confess: This passage fooled me into investigating whether or not such a series was ever written. Like other sources and documents referred to in the book, it's entirely the figment of the author's marvelously meticulous imagination.) Throughout, Jones's prose--whether bookish, mythical, or Southern colloquial--is pitch-perfect; not a word or expression wasted or out of place.

Jones's Manchester County is populated by dozens of plantation owners, slaves, poor folk, freedmen, and children, and his writing animates each and every one of them. There are at least forty characters in his novel (and I didn't find it difficult to keep track of them), but the book's several interlaced stories focus especially on the (dead) Henry Townsend, his widow Caldonia, his overseer Moses, his father Augustus, the local sheriff John Skiffington, and William Robbins, the former owner of the Townsends who allows Augustus to purchase his family's liberty. That Henry blemished his own freedom by purchasing slaves is a source of profound sadness to his mother and father: "Why trouble ourselves with you bein free, Henry? You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and legs." "I ain't done that any white man wouldn't do. I ain't broke no law."

Such passages highlight the moral bankruptcy that affected the judgments of everyone affected by slaveholding. Without minimizing the overwhelming destruction to the lives of African Americans, Jones recalls that even freedom, when granted to blacks, remained the whim of white men and, against the evidence of their own experiences, a few freed blacks sometimes fruitlessly and irrationally aspired to "be like white folk." And the whites--both men and women, rich and poor--were themselves hardly worthy of emulation: morally compromised by their dehumanizing authority, sexually obsessed with their "property," and ultimately unable even to enjoy or exploit the massive amounts of leisure time that slavery allowed them. (A theme that recurs in this book is the appalling immaturity and pampered slothfulness of slave-owners.) "The Known World" reminds us forcefully what we've known all along: that slavery poisoned everything and everyone it touched.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book is wonderfully written, and opens up people's eyes to see the ENTIRE aspect of slavery that people may often overlook.

In summary,Henry and Caldonia Townsend are black plantation owners in Manchester County, Virginia. They are highly respected by most everyone in the county. Henry himself was once a slave for Mr. Robbins, and it is Mr. Robbins who helped Henry to become the plantation owner he is today. In the beginning of the book, Henry dies at a young age, leaving Caldonia (his wife) the sole owner of the plantation. Though they are her slaves, Caldonia still treats them like humans. Her daily discussions with the married slave overseer, Moses, eventually leads to an affair between the two.

The many daily occurences-both good and bad- that go on in the Townsend's slaves' lives are revealed in snippets throughout the book, making it hard to put down. Church services the slaves have on the plantation are described, punishments for disobedient slaves are seen, and the yearning that some slaves, such as Moses, have for freedom is brilliantly revealed. Additionally, the book follows an affair between the white Mr. Robbins and one of his slaves. The two go on to have children together, and one of them eventually marries Caldonia.

This novel is so engaging because it opens people's eyes to all circumstances of slavery. People see how slaves themselves viwed slavery, how plantation owners viewed it, and how others such as deputies and on-lookers viewed this matter.

Additionally, the book is very historically accurate. It mentions the Underground Railroad and US Census statistics, which further strengthened the book.

This book was overall great. It is very easy to read. It provides a number of different viewpoints that people had in this trying time over the slave issue. The only downside to the novel is that it gets off to a somewhat confusing start with all of the characters. However, there is a character list in the back of the book which greatly helps to keep track of who is who. As the novel progresses, it becomes more and more engaging with each turn of the page.

This book is amazing, and would most likely be enjoyed by anyone,no matter if they are interested in history or not. Most definitely this is a must-read.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
While I won't go so far as to say that this was the best book of the year, as pretty much every book reviewer and prize committee seems to have done, I will say that this is an important work of literature and one that is worthy of reading and re-reading. My only criticism is that it introduces just a few too many characters early in the novel, and this flaw creates confusion during the first half of the book. I found myself at times trying to remember who was who, and how they were all related. But other than that, this is a great book. Many reviewers have compared it to Toni Morrison, for obvious reasons. I actually found that the prose and story were more reminiscent of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Like Lonesome Dove, this book maintained throughout a sense of an epic journey, and of a world and lives that had existed long before the story began and would continue to exist long after. The prose is simple and honest, with a sound of period authenticity. As for the characters, many are memorable, but none stood out as a true hero or anti-hero of the novel. If this were a movie, it would be a true ensemble cast with no clear starring role. I think that is what gives the book such a genuine feel. It is not just a story of one man or woman, with lots of other characters circling around the spotlight. Rather, it is a portrait of life in the South prior to the Civil War. The book is not about the characters, per se, but rather about the world in which they live. Jones has done a wonderful job of portraying this world in a way that doesn't seem to glorify or condemn any of it. It would have been easy to fall into that trap of making some sort of political statement with this novel, but Jones cautiously leaves that for the reader to decide. What Jones does, instead, is bring to light a fascinating period of American history, and by focusing on a black slave-owner, he has created an awareness that I think was lacking in American literature.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Much has already been said about the basic plot of this book, so I'd like to address the non-linear writing style...imagine yourself as a leaf tumbling down a stream, sometimes hurtling forward, yet frequently caught in little swirling eddies along the edges. If you relax and "go with the flow" rather than expecting this book to read as you would wish, you will find it to be an astounding and seductive experience on several levels.
The viewpoint of this book is equally fluid; through some magic, Jones has you seeing life through the eyes of whatever character he's currently focused upon. There are terrible, ugly, beautiful, sad, heartwarming things that happen constantly throughout this book and somehow, you are always identifying through the protagonist of the moment, whether this be a slave or a slave patroller, frightening as that might be. There is no melodrama here. Somehow, everything is just taken for granted, assumed...it is, after all, their known world. And, for a brief time, ours as well. We eventually come to take it for granted.
We can look back with the smugness of time and condemn slavery and its consequential perverse social structurings. Yet a book like this makes one question our own "known world," the social structures and cultural practices we take for granted and assume we are powerless to change. I wonder what our descendents will find equally perverse here...probably our oil addiction which forces us to attempt to control countries half-way around the world rather than simply learning to make do with less here at home.
Curator, AfroAmericanHeritage dot com
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