The Known World
Edward P. Jones
Why you have to read this book…
Brilliant.…So utterly original that it makes most everything previously written about slavery seem outdated and pedestrian. It belongs on the shelf with other classics of slavery, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.
One of those rare works of fiction that both wound and heal.
Stunning….Words flow quietly and build toward frequent crescendos that are breathtaking. Dialogue is pitch perfect, landscapes seem authentic, and personal squabbles are always adjudicated with wisdom.
Once you start the book you are hooked….Consider this novel necessary reading.
-Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The first thing I do before diving into writing a review is google the author, interviews, and what’s been written to date about the book. In the case of The Known World, doing this has never been more revealing. It was important that my review take root only after watching interviews of author, Edward P. Jones. Jones so artfully slipped me into a fiction/nonfiction grey area by his ability to pose his characters and events as perfectly plausible and vividly existential that I had to hear firsthand and from him that it all was made-up, even though it read like historical fact. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself that Jones employs language that sound eerily like biblical history, at one point or another reads like old-testament lineage—and yes, to be cliché, like the gospel truth.
“There was one stick upon which Augustus had carved Adam at the base. Adam was holding up Eve who was holding up Cain who was holding Abel and so on and so on. After fourteen or more other figures, including his idea of the king and queen of England, there was George Washington. Rita not knowing, not caring what was on that stick, but knowing only that she might get another day of sun, took that wrapped stick of Adam and his people and held it.”
This passage came right before a runaway slave, Rita, was nailed shut into a shipping box with carved walking sticks and sent from Virginia to New York. We’re not talkin’ FedEx—we’re talking the 1800s prior to the PonyEx. Jones uses just enough detail to remind us of the biological “logistics” of shipping a human; and this is just a snapshot of the many details Jones feeds us throughout his book. He illustrates the agony, risk, and guile individuals conjured to escape the horrors of slavery. This makes Jones’ work a magnum opus. His storytelling of slave owning Blacks completely disrupts our antebellum paradigm.
Were there in real life slave owning Blacks? Yes. Could a spurious former slave turned slave master justify the institution of slavery: working, breeding, and viewing humans as less than? Yes. Can power and comfort’s chicanery seduce on all levels? Yes. Does any one group have a monopoly on f#%ked-up thinking? No.
And this is the stuff of Jones’ intricately detailed world that springs from the fictional county and town of Manchester, Virginia; a world he asserts was born sans research—just from his base of knowledge acquired over a lifetime of exposure to books and articles. Now that’s an argument in favor of being well read!
Jones spends an ample amount of time cultivating his characters, their intricate backstories, and their inner arguments in such a beguiling way as to have you entertain sympathy for the masters and justification for the institution. In this, however, Jones’ point is made. That is, the institution was a powerful slippery slope that in small pockets blurred racial boundaries to become purely driven by economics. It created twisted and dysfunctional relationships that at its inception were never imagined. Looking ahead, slavery’s institution would be turned topsy-turvy by the war, reconstruction, and eventually Jim Crow laws that sought to upright any tilt in power. Jones foreshadows this, thus his book is aptly named The Known World, because glimpsing into the unknown would have put the fear of God (and reconstruction’s reprisals) in the blacks that upheld slavery and were simple enough to believe they could prosper by perpetuating the very system that indiscriminately dismissed them.
Like the reviews inserted above, I highly recommend The Known World.
I enjoyed it read by actor, Kevin Free, on Audible. Thanks to his performance I was able to sort out the fifty or more characters. Free’s single voice was enough to lend a distinctive personality to each. He was a one man ensemble consisting of male, female, young and old, across the social strata, slave and free.