African American News and Genealogy

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Slavery focus of 'Known World'

"The Known World: a Novel" by Edward P. Jones, Amistad, $24.95. OAS_AD('x25'); "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones is a fictional story about the lives of slaves and freed slaves in the antebellum South. It takes place in and around fictional Manchester County, Va., in the 1850s. The story, however fictional, reads like an oral history of slavery in the United States. The plot, the characters and the setting have been created by the author, but the narrative depicts what history tells us about the despicable fact of human slavery the United States. The central character, besides the Townsend Plantation itself, is Henry Townsend, a former slave, who becomes a farmer, then landowner and finally a slave owner. When Henry dies, his wife, Caledonia, cannot manage the plantation sufficiently to stop slaves from running away or cheating her. Things fall apart in the small world that is the Townsend Plantation just as they are beginning to fall apart in the "known world" where slaves are running away, free blacks are sold back into slavery by unscrupulous bounty hunters, and whites are becoming more and more distrustful of their formerly predictable slaves. The language in which the story is told is fairly dispassionate. Jones' voice is plain and straightforward, without emotion. For example, the author talks about the racial make-up of Manchester County, quoting a fictional 1840 U.S. Census in such a way that we truly believe in its existence. In fact, I looked up Manchester County on a pre-Civil War map of Virginia and could not find it. Only then did I delve more and realize that this county is fictional! The black women in this novel are often strong and even powerful. Fern Elston, a free black woman, inspires the joy of learning in her black students; she is admired by all, black and white. But her voice is always emotionless, even when confronted with a gambler husband who is noted for constant absence, unfaithful and who squanders their money. In an interview in Publisher's Weekly (Aug. 11, 2003), Jones explained that his calm voice, even when describing the many acts of brutality in the book, was purposeful: "I didn't want to preach ... it was my goal to be objective, to not put a lot of emotion in this, to show it all in a matter-of-fact manner ... you just state the case and that is more than enough." Indeed. I listened to the talking book edition of "The Known World" while commuting. I had to stop the CD player a number of times while listening in order to collect myself because of a particularly sorrowful scene in the story. Most upsetting to me was the fate of Henry Townsend's parents, both freed slaves, who are treated, at the end of their lives, like chattel. Jones received a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2004 for "The Known World." Check the book out at your local Timberland Regional Library in regular or large print or talking book. Review written by Jean D. Barnett, a collection development specialist at Timberland Regional Library. Source:


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