“This is the story of a small farm in the antebellum south. Henry Townsend is moving up in the world. Once a slave, he bought his freedom and is making another life for himself and his wife. He now owns slaves himself and has high aspirations for his future.
All this changes when Henry dies suddenly. His wife, Caldonia, struggles to keep things together on the farm but she soon loses control. This is the story of an unraveling world. What happens to the slaves when their master dies? And what's to stop them from becoming masters themselves.
In intriguing and masterfully written novel, this fascinating take on one of the quirks of the peculiar institution provides much food for thought. ”
“This is one of those books that despite recognizing some skillful and impressive writing, goes under the category of not-for-me. The writer cites Faulkner as one of his influences and something in Jones' style does remind me of that author, admittedly not a favorite. The Known World is set in pre-Civil War Virginia, in the fictional county of Manchester, about which Jones weaves in faux census data and snippets of history.
It begins in July of 1855 at the farm of Henry Townsend, a black man born a slave who is himself a slave owner. It's an unlikely scenario, as Jones himself admits in an interview at the end of the book, particularly since, as he alludes to in the novel, Virginia law didn't allow a freed slave to remain longer than a year in the state, and any who did were subject to being returned to slavery. However, the premise does allow Jones scope to examine the emotional, social and moral complexities of slavery, so I was willing to allow him some latitude.
Ultimately it was the style that defeated me. His book is non-linear and meandering, jumping back and forth through time and different characters, and with touches of magical realism. I think particularly in a novel treating of such a dark subject, it was fatal that I never settled in or was grounded by my sympathy with any one character (and in fact almost every character was repellant in some way), and reading this became more and more a slog, particularly since I found the prose style less than graceful. It's the kind of book where--and right from the first sentence--you have to read and read again trying to parse the meaning.”
“I did't like this so I didn't finish it. I got about 1/3 of the way through.”Kristin W wrote this review Friday, August 30, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Very interesting - both story and writing style. I enjoyed reading it. Learned a lot about slavery that I would not have imagined - such as - black people owned slaves; the high cost of slaves $300 to $600 back in the 1800's; prejudice of black people within their own race (lighter to darker); specific cruel treatment by owners. ”Eleanor wrote this review Friday, August 23, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Great book with history. It had lots of characters that slowed the read down. Finally, I read the last two chapters to find out what I wanted and then I skimmed the chapters to get the gist of the rest of the book. I think skimming this book worked better than reading so carefully. It has too slow of an active plot. ”Melany wrote this review Monday, June 10, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Pulitzer Prize winner. Wow....very unusual.”Robin L. Finley wrote this review Friday, May 10, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Despite some luminous moments where the characters come alive in a special way, this novel about the lives of slaves in a fictional community in Virginia of the 1830s felt too hermetic and sealed off for me to enjoy it as thoroughly as others might.
The special hook that the story holds is its rendering of freed blacks who became slave owners themselves. The focus is on one such plantation with about 30 slaves which is struggling to adapt to the death of its black master, Henry Townsend. We get a plausible history along the way of how his father, Augustus, was so talented at furniture making that he bought his own freedom, and state legislative action allowed him to continue residing in the state and eventually bought the freedom of his son.
With other free blacks, such as the feisty, condescending teacher Fern, who came from the North, they form a small society of their own. While Augustus abhors slavery, his son tries to emulate the path taken by the whites to economic success by owning slaves. Despite an ambition to become a benevolent master, the corrupting influence of owning people as property is well portrayed. When his lonely widow takes up a love relationship with her plantation foreman, she is replicating the same abuse of power enacted by most other white plantation owners, and the consequences are tragic.
The “know world” of plantatnion life in this fictional county is like an island in time, and the characters themselves seem stuck in it like insects in amber. The omniscient narrator is god-like in passing into the thoughts and dreams of more than a dozen characters. Unfortunately, the reader gets distanced from emotionally connecting to them by the narrator breaking the flow to leap backward and forward in time to reveal some particular fact or person’s fate. Ultimately, the human bonds holding people to each other came off as tenuous and unreal as beholding a ship in a bottle.
Unlike the romanticized lives portrayed in Hailey’s “Roots”, the characters have no sense of cultural history of their African origins (the word itself appears nowhere in the book), and there is no foreshadowing of plantation life as a doomed phase in history on the path to the Civil War. The idea of a slave revolt is unthinkable, and the one humane white character, Sheriff Skiffington, feels no compunction over diligently carrying out a big part of his job in organizing night patrols and retrieval efforts when “property” runs away. Though we get no sense of the reality of the “Underground Railroad”, we do get a brilliant vision at one point where Augustus ends up mailing a slave girl to Philadelphia in a crate along with a shipment of his hand-carved walking sticks.
In an interview with Jones appended to the audiobook version of the novel, he admits he did not do much research for the book and was not concerned about communicating any particular message to his readers about the history of slavery. As the creator of all the characters, he would not admit to favoring any one character over another. Still the reader can’t help but getting the message of how inhumane slavery was and how individuals trapped in it strived to achieve some form of dignity in their lives. Like other reviewers, I didn’t feel I got to know any of the characters well enough to get emotionally engaged with them. When not interrupted by invasions from the narrator, the prose is effective in evoking the place and time, an obvious factor in helping it gain a Pulitzer Prize. Here is a lovely example from the opening for the book:
The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins. The young ones, his son among them, had been sent out of the fields an hour or so before the adults, to prepare the late supper and, if there was time enough, to play in a few minutes of sun that were left. When he, Moses, finally freed himself of the ancient and brittle harness that connected him to the oldest mule his master owned, all that was left of the sun was a five-inch long memory of red orange laid out in still waves across the horizon between two mountains on the left and one on the right. He had been in the fields for all of fourteen hours. He paused before leaving the fields as the evening quiet wrapped itself about him. The mule quivered, wanting home and rest. Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and ate it with no more thought than if it were a spot of cornbread. …he ate it not only to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field, but because eating it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life.
“One of my favorite books ever about the South. Great characters and insight
into human nature. I will read this book again and I rarely do that!”
“Fantasically written and I am pleased to own an autographed copy, first edition, first printing.”James wrote this review Thursday, March 21, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No