Book Review

 

Author: Edward P. Jones
Publisher: Harper Collins
Page count: 388 (hardback)

By Lynne DeMichele

(UMCom) -- When Augustus Townsend learns that his ambitious son Henry has bought the man Moses to work his newly acquired 50-acre farm, he beats Henry with a walking stick and rages at him, "That’s how a slave feels." Henry, who is black, represents a little-known fact of the antebellum South: some black people owned slaves. This early scene in The Known World, Edward P. Jones’ elegant first novel and this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, exposes the heart of the story and its basis in history with all its moral dimensions.

A bright and observant young man, Henry had worked hard to buy his own freedom from William Robbins, one of the most powerful white men in the county. After learning from Robbins what there was to learn about owning human property, he resolves to "be a better master than any white man he had ever known." By the time he reaches the age of 31 he owns a fine two-story house he and his slave Moses built together, and the windowless cabins in the lane nearby are populated by his 33 handpicked slaves. Having been educated by Fern Elston - "an almost white" free woman, Henry loves reading the Bible and also Milton’s Paradise Lost. His favorite passage is the one in which the devil declares he’d rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.

Edwards’ story line and characters weave in and out of time, salted with the heartbreaking details of life under slavery.
Henry Townsend dies at the early age of 35, and his widow Caldonia is immobilized by grief. A free woman all her life, she is conflicted about slavery and ignores her mother’s admonition to "preserve the legacy," passively allowing her slaves to start slipping away. Lonely and overwhelmed with responsibility, she begins a relationship with the overseer Moses, breaching the code that keeps her "property" separate from her. Soon, the social order of the small plantation begins to unravel. Families and relationships once bound by love and loyalty begin to betray one another.

Just beyond the Townsend estate the known world of fictional Manchester County, Va., also begins to break down. Rumors of slave rebellion set white families against once-trusted slaves, white patrollers watch idly as unprincipled speculators sell free blacks back into bondage and a certain awakening moves house slaves to desert white intimates with whom they’d lived "close as kin." In the aftermath of this upheaval of the social order, some achieve true freedom, while others find less happy fates.

Edwards’ story line and characters weave in and out of time, salted with the heartbreaking details of life under slavery. The first 100 pages or so require some real concentration to keep track of who’s who. Then once the story gains traction it begins to resonate and the characters begin to breathe: Moses, a black slave who eats dirt because "the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life." William Robbins, a prominent white man who has long loved one of his black slave women "far more than anything he could name." John Skiffington, the white sheriff who reads the Bible compulsively to banish thoughts about a pretty little black girl who has become part of his family. Fern Elston and Caldonia Townsend, members of a free Negro minority that, "while not having the power of some whites, had been brought up to believe that they were rulers waiting in the wings."

Even the minor characters in this densely populated book have rich interior lives and histories. We can see them, smell them and recognize their voices.
Edwards allows his characters to be fully human, and each is uniquely flawed. Every one is rendered unblinkingly without judgment, reserve or sentimentality. His use of sensory detail lures us to live among them and to understand them at a gut level. Stepping into his master’s house for the first time, Moses - whose solace is rooted in the woods - "smelled what a tree smelled like when it was first cut into, the wood blood from the first wound of the axe."

Even the minor characters in this densely populated book have rich interior lives and histories. We can see them, smell them and recognize their voices. And we come to understand how each is motivated as they make their way through that complex culture where some people own their own wives and children like they own their mules, and where family boundaries often blur at the edges. The social clarity of the time that equates skin color to status and human value becomes confused as black shades into white and back again through generations.

In setting his story in such ironic circumstances, first-time novelist Jones focuses vividly but not exclusively on pain endured by enslaved blacks. Most interestingly he turns the light on the moral impact of this egregious social institution for both blacks and whites through its capricious cruelties of power. The book clearly earns its Pulitzer.

Lynne DeMichele is a professional writer, editor and former director of communications for the Indiana Area United Methodist Church.

This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.

Please be aware that when you purchase a copy of this book through UMC.org, you are directly supporting this ministry.



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