K.D. Absolutely's Reviews > The Known World

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
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Dec 08, 10

bookshelves: pulitzer, favorites
Recommended to K.D. by: Pulitzer
Read from November 18 to December 06, 2010 — I own a copy, read count: 1

In this book I learned that there used to be black slaveholders in the US. I thought that only white people were allowed to own slaves during the time that owning slaves were like owning properties. During that pre-Abolition time. During those sad dark days in the American history.

Black Edward P. Jones (born 1951) wrote this historical epic novel, The Known World based on the not well known fact that there were some black slaveholders (black people owning black slaves) in the state of Virginia during the time in the US when owning slave is legal. Wikipedia has this to say:
"Slavery in the United States was a form of unfree labor which existed as a legal institution in North America for more than a century before the founding of the United States in 1776, and continued mostly in the South until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.[1] The first English colony in North America, Virginia, first imported Africans in 1619, a practice earlier established in the Spanish colonies as early as the 1560s.[2] Most slaves were black and were held by whites, although some Native Americans and free blacks also held slaves; there were a small number of white slaves as well.[3]"
Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Award for Fiction, The Known World is one of the most memorable reads I had this year. It is not an easy book to read. This 388-page novel left me with a heavy chest each time I closed the book. Each page is gloomy and sad. The novel is well-told with lyrical prose creating a big canvas of imagery in one's mind while reading. In that big canvas are memorable and three-dimensional numerous characters most of them black slaves. No character is downright bad or good. The detailed description of the sceneries of a fictional county called Manchester and the true depictions of the characters are exceptionally striking that I had to slow down in my reading to savor the story and hold on *tugging to them, cheering them on* to each characters. Reading the last page left me with a heavy heart. I would not want to let go of that image of Manchester and say goodbye Please don't go yet to the characters that I already became part of my literary world. The world that resides in the recesses of my brain. The world that is known only to me populated by people who I met only in my readings.

In terms of writing, Jones extensively use the technique called prolepsis that I first encountered reading Muriel Sparks' The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Jones explained this in the interview (appendix of the book) saying that he is the God of those characters so he knows what happened in the life of each characters from the time he/she was born up to the time his/her death. The most moving example of this use was with the character of the child Tessie. One fine day of September 1855, their mistress Caldonia saw the 5-y/o Tessie playing with a wooden toy horse. Caldonia says to the child: That is very nice, Tessie to which Tessie responded, My papa did this for me. In January 2002, on her deathbed, the old Tessie asked her caretaker to get the wooden toy horse from the attic. While holding the toy, she breathed her last saying the same thing: My papa did this for me.

My heart stopped beating. Tears welled up in my eyes. That scene is just one of the many moving scenes about those slaves in that time of the history in Virginia when black people were traded like they were not human but properties.

I can make this review very long. There are just too many good things I would like to say here but I am afraid that no review can make justice to a book as good as this.
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Reading Progress

11/18/2010 page 50
12.0% "Sad melancholic book about slavery in Deep South USA during the 18th century. Very depressing (and a bit hard to read due to 14 individual stories running in parallel) but the writing is glorious!"
11/27/2010 page 100
23.0% "Very interesting characters! I am slow in reading this because I both have the book and the audioCD and I read while listening. The audio slows down my pace but I am enjoying it (my first). I noticed that there are differences between them. Probably the audio is a later version because I find it more succinct and exact. The book is a bit winding."
11/30/2010 page 169
39.0% "Now, I am used to the characters and no longer need to refer to the table at the back of the book when reading. I'm gaining speed!"
12/01/2010 page 255
59.0% "From page 1 to where I am now (p 255) every page is sad and gloomy but... beautiful. Each time I close the book to rest, I feel sad but at the same time I would like to continue reading. Each time I start reading feels like I am entering into an old world in America in the 1800. Wonderful."
12/03/2010 page 270
63.0% "Another character is introduced this late part of the story. The man who is traveling. Not sure what that is all about but there are already too many characters and they are ALL interesting. I can close this book and rate this with 5 stars but I will read on as I want to know what lies ahead."

Comments (showing 1-32 of 32) (32 new)

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message 1: by jzhunagev (new) - added it

jzhunagev I always see this one in Booksale. Maganda rin ito I think, Pulitzer prize winner na about pa sa African-American experience. Panalo Kuya! :)

K.D. Absolutely I am now on page 50. Di ko lang ma-change dito sa office ang status ha ha. Hard to read. 14 Parallel stories in 3 locations. About slavery in the 18th century in the Deep South. My first time to know that there were free Black people with their own Black slaves!

Teresa I really liked this book, K.D., and I agree about the glorious writing. I look forward to your review.

K.D. Absolutely Thanks, T. It will take me a while to finish this book.

Teresa K.D. wrote: "Thanks, T. It will take me a while to finish this book."

I'll be here when you get to it. :) There are a couple of scenes I'm very interested to hear your take on.

K.D. Absolutely Aha, so I need to read very carefully ha ha! So, far I like the scene when the young boy Henry (who later will become a grown up man with slaves) was returned back to his parents but it seems that he would rather stay with his master. Then there was another slave who threw herself to Henry's parents because she would not want to let go of the boy. She died later. So sad.

I am writing this in the office and have no time to refer to the actual names of those characters. Maybe in my review ha ha.

message 7: by K.D. (last edited Dec 06, 2010 03:51PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely T, which are those two scenes? I loved the novel. There are many scenes that are etched in my mind. Aside from that young and old Tessie scenes, I also liked Stamford picking blueberries while there were lightning in the farm. When the two children (Tessie and Grant) smiled and saw appreciation to Stamford, I was weeping.

I also liked the scene with Elias and Celeste with the baby Elwood. "Maybe you have to listen to me". Fast forward to present day. Elwood talking to Robbins when the latter says: "I know your parents and I can tell them their their boy do not know how to honor his words". Then Jones saying in the narration that 70% of the present blacks in Virginia came, by blood or marriage, from Elias and Celeste's lineage.

Oh I will take all day listing down and talking about the scenes I loved.

message 8: by Teresa (last edited Dec 06, 2010 07:47PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Teresa Great review, K.D. I liked your image of a canvas of imagery in your review. It reminded me of how important maps were in the book, esp the map of Manchester County as a piece of art.

I, too, felt the same about the characters and living in their world.

message 9: by Teresa (last edited Dec 06, 2010 07:48PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Teresa K.D. wrote: "T, which are those two scenes?"

First, I was thinking of the scene when Counsel is driving through all the people of different color on their rumbling horses through Texas. It had an eerie dream-like feeling that reminded me of one scene in Life of Pi.

And though The Known World isn’t of the genre of ‘magical realism,’ some of it reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Besides the Texas scene, there’s the ‘flying’ cabin that Stamford sees, though that could be explained to be a vision or dream. And then the fictional Manchester County being no more, being subsumed, reminded me of Marquez’s Macondo, especially with them both having maps, though Macondo's map is a lost one and Manchester County’s is a piece of art.

message 10: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Yes, that piece of art in the exhibit done by Alice Night gave me goosebumps. The world as the God looking down would have seen from above (or something like that). The map of the Manchester County made of cloth, pieces of wood, etc with all the characters in it looking up. I hope somebody in Hollywood turns this into a movie and this will be one of the scenes I will look forward to.

Of course, that last part came as a surprise. All the while, I thought that the 3 (Alice, the fat boy and Moses wife) were already dead. What a relief that they succeeded in their lives despite being left in the woods by the greedy and selfish Moses.

Teresa K.D. wrote: "Oh I will take all day listing down and talking about the scenes I loved."

Most poignant to me, I think, was the reason Minerva doesn’t let her white surrogate mother know where she has gone. The phrasing on the posters Mrs. Skiffington has put up uses a phrase, “she answers to,” as if Minerva isn’t a human being but a pet. The point is made that Mrs. S. has lived in the South so long she doesn’t see the harm in her phrasing at all.

Teresa K.D. wrote: "Yes, that piece of art in the exhibit done by Alice Night gave me goosebumps. The world as the God looking down would have seen from above (or something like that). The map of the Manchester County..."

I remember all the people (in the map) standing by their cabins, no one in the slave cemetery any longer. Henry isn’t in his grave anymore either, though he doesn’t get to stand by his big house – he stands by his gravesite, a site covered in flowers. Like you said, goosebumps.

message 13: by K.D. (last edited Dec 06, 2010 07:58PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Yes, I've read Life of Pi but I liked it. Not jumping up and down though. The scene with the Counsel was dreamlike, yes but he is not one of the characters that I became fond of so the scenes where he is in did not actually sink in with me. Except of course when he murdered Skiffinton. I read last that part last night and I was having a chest pain because I hated Counsel so much.

Yes, I thought of mentioning G. G. Marquez 100 Years of Solitude because of the magical realism but I thought that Jones's use of it is far in between. Yes, I liked the flying cabin, the spontaneous combustion, the lightning scene with Stamford holding the blueberries, etc.

Then the Townsend family here actually did not progress from many generations like the Macondo family. Both Augustus and Henry died. Jones's main intent, I think, is to show how a black slaveholder, however good intention he may have (especially if he is already dead) can still go wrong. His fellow blacks are as human as anybody else and their can have wrong judgement and can still be very much governed by greed. In the end, black or white does not really matter. Black, white or Cherokee does not really count. What counts is the individual regardless of race.

In the other hand, I think Marquez's intent in One Hundred Years of Solitude is to show how the previous generations can affect the succeeding ones. How the mistakes of the forefathers could have impact to their future lineage.

Teresa K.D. wrote: "... the greedy and selfish Moses. "

I know there were things I probably missed, that I might've caught with a 2nd reading.

For example, there’s the emphasis at the end of Augustus dying on a Tuesday and somewhere early someone mentions that Tuesdays are the lucky day and that he should get married on that day.

And then there is Moses making the creaking noise on the stairs shortly after Counsel notices that the stairs in that house don’t creak.

Not sure what it all means, but I wrote it down afterward to remember!

message 15: by K.D. (last edited Dec 06, 2010 08:09PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Yey! I remember that. I don't have the book right now (I am in the office) but it was Augustus telling his son Henry in the earlier chapter. It was Henry who died in the first third of the story and it was on a Tuesday while he was lying on his bed at home. Augustus was re-sold to be a slave again and died in the last few chapters of the story.

That second scene was before Moses was killed. He just came out from nowhere. It really surprised me as well. I did not know that he was in that house where Counsel killed Skiffington. I did not pay attention to the creaking. I thought that it had something to do with the house being old. Previously, it did not creak when it was still new (my assumption).

Teresa K.D. wrote: "His fellow blacks are as human as anybody else and their can have wrong judgement and can still be very much governed by greed. In the end, black or white does not really matter. Black, white or Cherokee does not really count. What counts is the individual regardless of race."

Definitely! And I think that was the point of that scene in Texas that I found eerie and dreamlike.

Good discussion of Jones vs. GGM, K.D.

On a note of synchronicity, last night I read in an essay by Julio Ortega that he'd asked Toni Morrison if she got the idea for her characters flying back to Africa from "100 Years" and she said, no, it came from Ohio, from stories she'd heard. Ortega then makes the point that the stories originally come from African folklore. I bet the same is true of some things here in Jones' novel.

message 17: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Great review, KD. Most Americans know about these horrifying practises in our history, but some seem very remote and uncaring about it.
Does this book discuss the black men in Africa who were very instrumental in securing slaves and trading them?

message 18: by mark (new)

mark monday a fascinating review!

message 19: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely T, thanks. I will be on the lookout for that essay.

B, yes. This was in the 1800's and I agree that it seems to be too remote for people to care about. It was just an added knowledge for me as a non-American. No, it does not discuss anything about black men in Africa. But in Wiki (the first paragraph is shown above), the English people were the ones who imported the black slaves from Africa. I just did not research who they dealt with but yes, could be the black men in Africa as you said. I will read further on this. I am actually planning to read [Book: Absalom, Absalom] soon as a follow up to this. Wiki says that this is Faulkner's masterpiece and the best novel that is about slavery in the South.

Thanks, Mark.

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly A must-read for flat-chested women! Great, informative review!

message 21: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Why flat-chested women? I remember that the bosoms of the lady characters here are huge rather than flat.

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly Because you wrote that the book left you "with a heavy chest everytime..." So if flat-chested women read this, their boobs become bigger/heavier.

message 23: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Ah, okay ha ha. Should I say heavy "heart" instead?

Kwesi 章英狮 Ooo interesting, parang kahit saang booksale ako pumupunta, I saw this book sa corner, akala ko di maganda.

message 25: by K.D. (last edited Dec 08, 2010 05:12PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely I thought so. It could be a bit challenging to read, Kwesi. The story is told in 14 perspectives (mostly black slaves') and each perspective can go back and forth. What I mean is that a character, for example like Henry (the black slaveowner), can be alive on page 2 and dead on page 3 and alive again on page 4. Or even in the same pages. The prolepsis works like "One morning, Kwesi is walking to the veterinary clinic where he works. He just enters the lobby of clinic and feels gloomy because he does not like his job. He has no idea that in 15 years, he will be entering the same lobby not as a worker but its owner. Blah blah." That blah blah can be long and if you are not paying attention, you might find asking yourself, is Kwesi still a worker or an owner?

The novel, though, does not use something like that: job, career, etc. Mostly, it is about the character being dead after so x number of years. So, it is gloomy. That's the reason why many people would not like this book and it is not a breeze to read.

Kwesi 章英狮 Hala, while cleaning my shelves I saw a copy of this book hiding between two YA fiction! Ok lang yun, still, I'm going to buy the copy you bought for me. Hehe.

message 27: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Onga. Nabili na.

Why not list all your books and enter them as tbr in GR. That way, you'll be able to minimize duplication. That's what I do.

Kwesi 章英狮 I'm 90% done, I only have one shelf left to put here. Anyway, I'm still going to buy the book. Hehe.

Angus Why the demotion? Harumph!

message 30: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely To give way to "Ulysses"? :)

Angus *roll eyes* I'm stuck at episode 8, hahaha!

message 32: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Haven't you finished it yet?

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