Many of the books I have most enjoyed have had the common characteristic of having created their own, completely believable and consistent world. Historical fiction has it a bit easier and harder than, say, science fiction. Easier in the sense that the world they create was at least known at some point in time. Harder in that to make the world they create internally consistent and believable, they often have to bring the reader gently through all the incorrect and inaccurate common knowledge that exists.
Edward P. Jones’ The Known World is so good that when I finished the book and read the end-notes, I was positively shocked that he had created the books characters, geography, and history from whole cloth. Now admittedly, I should have known this -- the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is not typically handed out for history books. However, the surprise I felt is small praise for this incredibly well-written, powerful and engaging novel.
Jones writes of the life and times of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who manages to buy his freedom, start his own farm, and become a slave owner himself. The circumstances of Townsend’s enslavement, manumission, his relationship with his former owner, William Robbins are only one of the fascinating threads that Jones weaves together. A second important thread in this tapestry of a book is the history of the Townsend clan, his father and mother (also manumitted slaves) and their relationship with both the black slave world, the white community by which they are surrounded, and the very small, but intriguingly robust community of free blacks. Jones does a detailed and subtle job here….the characters are well formed, strong personalities who come alive in a complex dance macabre of race relations (both inter- and intra-race), economics, and politics. The third thread of the novel follows Henry’s wife, Caledonia, who takes charge of the plantation upon Henry’s death. Her relationship with the slaves under her charge, the conduct of a plantation, and the interactions between slaves, slave owners, and the potential for becoming either one are well articulated and fascinating.
By the way, if you are looking to explore the meaner aspects of slavery, it is all here. Physical oppression, sexual exploitation, the tearing apart of families and the creation of second-class citizens are part of the story as are the choices of response to the products of sexual oppression -- the subjugation of one’s own children or the elevation of same.
Jones has written a deep, rich exploration of the range of human emotions and human relationships. He takes a hard, cold look at slavery and all its implications without moralizing. His choice of focus on a black slave owning family is a very useful mechanism for a full exploration of the impact of slavery on both the slave and the owner without the complication of race. Jones’ parallel exploration of white slave owners both “decent” (to whatever definition of decent slave owner you can conjure up) and abusive is an equally useful tool in exploring both the brutal realities of the more typical race-based oppression and the impact of being a slave owner on a person possessing some conscience.
Moreover, the exploration of the interrelationships within the free black community provides an insight that I have never before come across and found fascinating. Similarly, Jones provides a view into the poor white community – while unsurprisingly more familiar – are still deeply insightful regarding the overall shaping force of society that slavery became in this time.
Jones’ dialogue is terrific and his use of the vernacular is sparing and tremendously effective. His characters are well developed (both black and white) and interesting and complex – Jones imbues richness to the main players that enhances the story-telling all around.
All in – plot development, character development, the exploration of emotion and behavior and the terrific interplay between people and their environment all combine to create a world in which you the reader can lose themselves – completely captivating and powerful and believable and that leaves no doubt of Jones absolutely deserving of the prize that was bestowed upon him and The Known World .