Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

If you were gripped and fascinated by The Book of Negros (by Laurence Hill) you may want to check out
The Known World by Edward P Jones for another revealing look at slavery.

Jones tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave, who becomes a powerful slaveholder in his own right.  When he dies suddenly, his widow cannot keep his estate in order and the "known world" begins to fall apart. 

This book was not an easy read... but in a different way than the Book of Negroes.  The Book of Negroes was often difficult to read because the subject matter was so raw and gritty that it hurt to keep reading.  Before Jones wrote The Know World, he wrote short stories - and that is evident in his writing style.  In a short story, the narrator is often "omniscient" - able to take on every character's perspective and see both past and future.  This is a helpful device when trying to tell a rich, full story in a short space.  Jones uses this technique in a novel length, which meant that sometimes so much happened, and you hopped around from past to future so quickly, that it became a little disorienting.  Once I got used to it, I could appreciate what he was doing, but it was a little dizzying at first... or maybe that's first trimester baby-brain talking.  :-)

For example (page 67-69), there is a passage describing the slaves walking to the master's house after Henry dies, that begins:
"The slaves Henry Townsend left his wife were thirteen women, eleven men, and nine children." 

And there follows a description of all of the children.  Here's what he says about Tessie:
"Tessie began skipping but an adult told her that a human being had died and skipping should be left off to another day.  Tessie would soon be six years old and being the child of her parents who she was, she listened and stopped skipping.  Tessie would live to be ninety-seven years old, and the doll her father was making for her would be with her until her last hour.  She and the doll, long missing the corn silk hair Elias her father had put on it, would outlvie two of her children, and the doll would outlive her."

And about Patrick:
"Also at the head of the crowd were Delores, seven years old, and her brother Patrick, three years younger.  Delores would live to be ninety-five years old, but her brother would die when he was forty-seven, shot three times by a man as Patrick came out of the man's bedroom window after being with the man's wife.  The night Patrick was killed he had a choice - go down to the bottom and spend the night playing cards or go through that man's bedroom window where the wife was waiting.  'I need what you got, P-Patrick,' the wife had said to him earlier that day. 'I need it bad.'  The cards had not been falling right for Patrick that week.  He had already lost $53 and owed one evil man $11 more, so he thought he would have better luck with that man's wife. 'Give me what you got, P-Patrick.'"

Isn't it a bit strange to know that about a four-year old boy?  But this technique allows Jones to cover many people's lives from beginning to end, while telling a story that actually takes place in less than a year.  I guess that's why so many reviewers describe this novel as "epic".


  1. So I guess congratulations are in order if I read your post right!


  2. Yes, that's right Marsha - due in September and feeling great. :-)


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