Friday, January 9, 2009

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Known World by Edward P. Jones is based in Manchester County, Virginia, and tells the story of a pre-Civil War slave owner, his family, and his slaves. What makes this story so different from many others is that the slave-owner, Henry Townsend, is a black man who was a slave himself before his father purchased his freedom.

Edward P. Jones gives the readers of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel a glimpse of life for all types of people, both black and white, who live in Virginia in the mid-1800s. There is Fern Elston--a free black woman who educates black children; there is Sheriff John Skiffington, who tries to be an upstanding Christian citizen while upholding the laws and keeping the peace, all the while struggling with his own internal demons; there is William Robbins, one of the wealthiest white men in the county, who not only has a wife and daughter, but who falls in love with a black woman and has 2 children with her; and there is Moses, the slave who is the overseer of all other slaves. Jones's characters are so unique in their personalities and situations.

Though I have been on a bit of a Civil War kick the last year, I have never read anything about a former slave slave-owner. I must admit that I never even knew that such circumstances ever existed. I did just a little bit of research on the topic and it looks as though a good percentage of black "slave owners" were former slaves who purchased their own freedom, then purchased their family members, and the purchased family members were then considered their property. However, there are also records of free black slave owners who owned large numbers of slaves to work their land.

I found The Known World to be an engrossing read. Jones brings many circumstances of slavery and the pre-war South out in the open that are not examined in most regular U.S. History classes. This would be a great book to discuss with others, and I will remember it for a long time. Highly recommended!

Date completed: January 9, 2008
# of Pages: 388


Jeane said...

My family was reading this book a while back and I tried, but just could not get into it. It does sound interesting, though. I did not know that some former slaves became slave-owners themselves.

Nicole said...

I would love to read this book, and I guess there is nothing stopping me being as it has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time. The premise sounds intriguing, I just had such a hard time making it past the first chapter. Glad to hear that it was good. I will try again.aff

Nymeth said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed this too, Laura.

Dar said...

Great review Laura! This makes me want to read this book again. I read it a few years ago and loved it. I'm glad you liked it too.

Trish said...

2 things: Love the green! And maybe this should have been your book club pick.

I didn't realize that there were black slave owners either--did you find a number on around how many there were? I picked this one up at the booksale last year, so now I'm really curious about it!

cj said...

Laura -

I agree, it's a great review and I will consider reading it at some point in time. Maybe when my Reichs bender is over...

Anyway, what often gets lost in the discussion of slavery is the simple fact that, to a large degree, slaves were an economic necessity at the time. No farmer, large or small, was going to succeed without the help of slaves, be they owned or indentured. With that in mind, it's not so surprising that there were free blacks who owned slaves.

Bizarre time in our history.


Kari said...

This was a great review and definitely a book I will have to pick up! I don't tend to focus as much on the Civil War, but I have a feeling I would really enjoy this book.

Maybe this should be your next pick?!?!?

Karen said...

Sounds like a really interesting book Laura. I have seen it around before so I might need to pick it up. I'm actually very interested in that period of American history even though I am Australian!

Literary Feline said...

This is a book that has been on my must read list for awhile now. I am glad to hear you enjoyed it!

Anna said...

Lorlasita! I like your new blog layout:) I also like that you listed your top 10 books of 2008 because now I'll have some ideas!..although I have already read a couple of them since you loaned them to me:) I acutally just picked up an Edward P. Jones book at the library a couple of weeks ago...can't remember what it is called but if I read it I'll let you know if it's good or not!

Laura said...

Jeane--I can see how this would be a difficult book to get into--especially until one gets used to the writing. I had to re-read passages frequently throughout the entire book. It was worth it though!

Nicole--thanks for stopping by! I think if you could get past the first chapter, you would start to get into the flow of the writing and enjoy it!

Nymeth--I re-read your review a few days ago, and you articulated my very thoughts (much better than I can). This will probably be one of my favs of this year.

Dar--I'm glad you liked it as well! Have you thought about reading his other book? Lost in the City, I think it's called.

Trish--thanks, I like it too! It would have been a good pick for my next book club book. I think you should still read it soon, even though I'm going to pick something different ;) I didn't find an exact statistic for the number of former slaves who owned slaves-I don't know if there is one recorded. It was very interesting to read about the small percentage of southerners who actually owned slaves. Many who fought for the South in the Civil War didn't own slaves at all.

Laura said...

CJ--how did the farmers manage after the slaves were emancipated? I know some slaves stayed on and worked at the same plantation but were payed wages (even if they were meager), but farming cotton still continued after slavery was abolished, so could you consider slavery an economic necessity? . I really should read more on the subject!

Kari--both you and Trish said I should maybe pick this for my next book club book. Now that I've read it, I want to pick something different though. I think you would like this one!

Karen--like CJ said, that was a very bizzare time in American history--I find it quite fascinating to read about!

LF--I hope you are able to read it soon!

Anna--I already have at least one book I'm going to bring in March for you to read. I think you would really like this one too, but it is better if you can sit and read it for long periods of time. I think if you didn't read it for a stretch of a couple of weeks or so, you could easily get confused.