Friday, October 30, 2015

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

According to the brief bio in my copy of The Known World by Edward P. Jones, he won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award for his debut collection of short stories, Lost in the City.  Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Known World.  He resides in Washington, D.C., and this is his first novel.  I am profoundly sorry this beautifully written work escaped my notice for so long.

This poignant tale of slave holders and slaves in Virginia takes place in the decades before the Civil War.  The head of the family was Augustus, who was a skilled carpenter; he and his wife Mildred had a son Henry.  Augustus’ owner allowed him to keep a portion of his wages, and he saved enough to buy his freedom, that of his wife, and later, Henry.  Caldonia Townsend was Henry’s wife.  All of these people were African-Americans.

Jones describes the day Henry died, “A few women had cried, remembering the way Henry smiled or how he would join them in singing or thinking that the death of anyone, good or bad, master or not, cut down one more tree in the life of the forest that shielded them from their own death; but most said or did nothing.  Their world had changed but they could not yet understand how.  A black man had owned them, a strange thing for many in that world, and now he was dead, maybe a white man would buy them, which was not as strange.  No matter what, though, the sun would come up on them tomorrow, followed by the moon, than dogs would chase their own tails and the sky would remain just out of reach” (60-61).  I read, re-read, and read again this and numerous other passages which brought tears to my eyes.  A must read.

I had heard of the complicity of rival African tribes capturing enemies and selling them to the slave traders, and I dismissed stories of African-Americans owning slaves.  However, Jones’ meticulously researched novel reveals much of the details of slavery at that time.  Henry was not able to buy slaves on the market, but he used his former owner as a straw purchaser of slaves.

Other characters included William and Ethel Robbins, white slave holders of 113 people, who owned Augustus and his family.  Then we have suspicious cousins from North Carolina, who railed against the freedoms some of the slaves enjoyed in the fictional Manchester County, Virginia.  Then we read of speculators, who would buy blacks, with assurances no harm would come to them, then immediately resell at a profit without any assurances at all.  Then the white sheriff, along with patrollers, who kept an eye on the movement of slaves around the plantation where they lived and worked.  However, not all these characters are what they seem to be, and several undergo rather startling changes.

The horrors of the Holocaust, numerous instances of genocide of millions around the world, and the slave trade all speak of the incomprehensible cruelty among humans.  The insidious slave trade was maintained by wealthy white people who ruled their “property” with a whip in one hand, a Bible in the other, and a black woman in their beds.  The more I learn of this shameful period in American and world history the more dispirited I become that we can survive as an intelligent, kind, and loving species.  What were these people doing owning their own people?  The mind boggles to think of what life must have been like for these poor wretched people.

Readers might know a lot about the history of the antebellum South, but read The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and I defy anyone to have a heart so stony not even a single tear is shed.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/22/15

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