Jun 2, 2008

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Set in the 1840’s in the fictional Manchester County, Virginia, The Known World is the story of Henry Towsend, a former slave who became a farmer and a slave-owner himself. The story is told in a non-linear way, with several flashbacks and flash-forwards. The main focus of the book are the events leading up to and following Henry’s death, but there are also episodes that take place several years before (concerning Henry’s life as a slave, for example, and how his parents saved money for years to buy his freedom) or after, and episodes that deal with many other characters – the other inhabitants of Manchester County, slaves and freemen alike. After Henry’s death, his widow Caldonia, an educated free woman of colour, is left in charge of the plantation, but very soon things begin to fall apart.

The Known World is a stunning book. It’s beautifully written, it’s subtle, it’s very moving, and it’s complex. It’s a book in which several tragic things happen, but it moves beyond being a parade of tragedies. It deals with race and gender, but it also goes beyond that. I’d say it’s the best book about slavery I’ve read so far, except it’s not so much a book about slavery as it is a book about several people caught up in a system whose full consequences are not easy to grasp.

It’s not easy to capture all the emotional complexities that slavery must have involved, but Edward P. Jones seems to have done just that. And I say “seems” because I’m still not sure that any of us can really grasp all that must have been involved. Looking back now, from the safety of historical distance, it’s easy to forget that these were people doing such things to one another, and so of course that all kinds of feelings would have been involved. Feelings that weren’t easy to label, feelings that weren’t always what they were supposed to be. From the part of masters and slaves alike.

Then there’s of course the question, how could an ex-slave ever become a slave owner? This book doesn’t really answer it (is there an answer?) but it deals with it in a manner that never becomes simplistic:
Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known. He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.
The week before I started The Known World I had to read a few chapters from James Walvin’s Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery for a project, and then I ended up reading the whole thing because the book was too good, too well-written and too informative, for me to put it down. I found that reading The Known World and Black Ivory side by side increased my understanding and appreciation of both books. While one gave me the facts, the other gave me the human realities behind them. The actual human lives. I want to share with you a passage from Black Ivory that perfectly describes what we see in The Known World:
Overseers and drivers in the Southern cotton fields were presumable no more or less inhuman, kind, sadistic or tolerant than their counterparts in the previous century in the Caribbean. It was the system which debased and corrupted. Doubtless it attracted its fair share of low life; of men, like men on the slave ships, not noted by their humanity or feelings. But even the most considerate of men generally found themselves debased by slavery. In so tainted a system, it was difficult for anyone in a position of authority not to be dragged down into slavery's corrosive mire. Whatever the management's ideal (and there were plenty of whites who sought to pursue it), the reality was much coarser, much cruder, less human.
The Known World is an honest, haunting and thought-provoking look at slavery and all that it involves. Edward P. Jones created a world in which everything has multiple shades of grey. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time, the kind of book that the more I think about, the more I like. Highly recommended.

Other Blog Reviews:
Lee Hoover
Reading Reflections

(Have you reviewed it as well? Let me know and I'll add a link to your review.)


  1. You've done it again...written a beautiful review about a book dealing with tough subjects. This book really does sound wonderful. Thanks Nymeth!

  2. I was already looking forward to reading this for Trish's challenge, but now I'm even more excited! Don't you love when two books you read around the same time have a common thread? It's always nice to know the facts or the true history behind the fiction. Thanks for the great review!

  3. I adore this book. It has taught me a lot about slavery and I didn't imagine that former slaves would have owned slaves themselves. Your review was fantastic, as usual.

  4. Thanks for a really great review. This book has been languishing on my TBR pile for months now, but perhaps I'll have to move it up a notch.

  5. I became interested in this book about a year ago and am looking forward to eventually reading it. Thank you for the wonderful review.

  6. As has been noted before, you have a gift for summarizing books that deal with uncomfortable subjects - you have done a marvelous job with this one. I'd heard of Black Ivory, but The Known World was completely new to me - both are now on my (nearly out of control) list. Which one should I start with, or does it matter?

  7. Debi, thank you, for your usual kindness. It is a wonderful book!

    Laura, I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one. And yes, I do love it when that happens!

    thatsthebook: I wouldn't have imagined it either. But then again, people do all sorts of unimaginable things all the time. And thank you :)

    heatherlo: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did

    Literary Feline: I really think you'll like this one!

    Ken, you are too kind. I don't think it matters which one you start with, no. They each make you see the other in a different light.

  8. Excellent review of an excellent book. I appreciate the link and really like your site!


  9. I've heard really good things about this one--sounds like like an important and moving read--thanks for the great review.

  10. Lee Hoover: Thank you :) I'm happy to hear you like my site!

    Trish: I think you'd enjoy this one! And yes, important and moving is exactly right.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.