There have been enough books written about slavery in the South that you wouldn’t think that there could be any original portrayals on this topic. Edward Jones, author of the Pulitzer prize winning The Known World, creates a fictional world around the town of Manchester, Virginia and the the family of Henry Townsend, a freed black man and slaveowner.
Henry is the central character of this book which begins at Henry’s deathbed and goes back and forth throughout his life from his time as a young slave boy to becoming free and then wealthy enough to build a plantation and purchase slaves himself. While Henry is the central character, Jones also sprinkles the novel with tales of many other members of this community ranging from William Robbins the wealthiest plantation owner in town who used to own Henry and then mentored him in the “art of slave owning”, to Sheriff Skiffington who believes he is anti-slavery but even more ardently believes in upholding the law, to Alice one of Henry’s mystical slaves who ends up escaping to the North and becoming an artist.
I love historical novels and this one does an amazing job of conveying what life was like on rural Virginian plantations. I was intimately immersed in the daily ebb and flow of the slaves, plantation owners and townsfolk. While Jones is clearly painting a picture that slavery poisons a society and brings down everyone that associates with it, I did not feel that he was portraying the slavery issue as one about the white man owning the downtrodden black man. Rather, it was a commentary on the evils of an economic system in which humans (black or white) own other humans and a social system which was the equivalent of a caste system. Towards the end of the novel, Henry’s widow, Caldonia (who was a free black woman when she married Henry), begins to have an affair with the slave overseer, Moses and she wonders if this is miscegenation. This was just one example of how Jones portrays how the evils of slavery can make the world completely illogical. Throughout the novel, I found it hard to imagine that blacks particularly former slaves could find it acceptable to own slaves themselves but this did practice did actually occur down South.
The Known World is a wonderful novel that was as thought provoking as it was entertaining. I highly recommend it and particularly for Dr. J – this is definitely right up his alley…….