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The Known World Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 14, 2003
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I am surprised to learn this novel is being taught in 10th grade. I've taught high school English, and I would never consider this book for my classroom. First, it's too long. Read morePublished 15 days ago by bee gee
This book has to be one of the worst books I've read. It started off really good. And then all of sudden, I was thrown into a whirlwind of names and different characters. Read morePublished 24 days ago by MannaFaith
This was a new subject to me. I had no idea that black people actually owned slaves. Surprisingly they played the part of "Master" just as it is traditionally done. Read morePublished 1 month ago by A Rochester
A memorable book set in the South in the early part of the 19th century. Mostly about 'free' blacks, the few who had won or purchased their freedom, and the few of those who owned... Read morePublished 1 month ago by kc spengler
I liked the book a lot, but sometimes got confused by the various characters.Published 1 month ago by Susan
Astounding! Evocative! Each page is alive and deeply etched. The book traces the lives of white people and both free blacks and slaves in antebellum south. Unforgettable!!Published 1 month ago by Marco Manfre