Dusty's Reviews > The Known World

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
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Jul 21, 12

it was amazing
bookshelves: pulitzer-winners, carly-dusty-book-club, read-in-2012
Read from May 23 to July 20, 2012

In textbooks on United States history, slavery appears and disappears within the first half, and already Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation," an executive order that didn't outlaw slavery but nonetheless signaled its death rattles, is 150 years old. I think a lot of people could ask why, two decades into the twenty-first century, we still write and read so many books about the peculiar institution. But anybody who seriously questions whether or not new stories can be told about one of the hemisphere's oldest injustices should take a look at Edward P. Jones's magnificent Pulitzer-winner, The Known World.

The work is novel insofar as it deals with slave-holders who are themselves black -- a phenomenon recognized as extremely common in Haiti but rarely more than a footnote in the history of the United States. At the center of the story is the plantation-owner Henry Townsend, a boy whose father buys his and his wife's freedom (essentially orphaning Henry except for their weekend visits) and whose vitality and knack for boot-making endears him to the powerful white land-owner, Robbins, who eventually enables him to buy his own land and slaves. Henry dies very young, but the narrative rolls forward and backward in time and draws in the wife and slaves who are brought into Henry's fold, not to mention Robbins, Sherriff Skiffington, and many other citizens of the County of Manchester, and so, like Pedro Páramo, his presence feels just as strong in his death as in his life.

For people who aren't intimately familiar with Virginian geography (myself included), perhaps the largest surprise is that Jones's story is a fiction: There was no Henry Townsend. There is no Manchester County. Of course, this is not to say that the author's characterizations are not based on extensive research. Rather, when he writes that two of Henry's slaves, Elias and Celeste, are the forebears of hundreds of Virginian families and the central couple in a recent college teacher's book on genealogy, he is playfully tipping his hat to the sources that comprised his own research and reminding us that behind census records, folklore studies, and scattered interviews, there are stories the American historical archive hasn't recorded and hasn't yet recovered. The Known World is not just another entry in the collection of books about slavery. It is a reminder that there is much about slavery we have yet to learn.
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Reading Progress

05/23/2012 page 12
3.0%
07/20/2012 page 357
92.0% 2 comments
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message 1: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Haase-alvey Hooray! You have time to read again :)


Dusty Kristin wrote: "Hooray! You have time to read again :)"

Slowly but surely! Now, what I need is the time to write reviews!


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