“The Known World” by Edward Jones gets its title from a small excerpt within one of the middle chapters. I can understand that, as finding the right name name for such an ambitious and ultimately satisfying novel must be like trying to achieve absolute perfection. Impossible, because there’s no such thing. But Jones sure comes as close to it as anyone can.
This Pulizter Prize winner about the waning years of slavery in Manchester County, Virginia is constructed through an endless array of stories about the lives of about two dozen characters. None of the stories are told in any particular order and it’s not uncommon to read about certain exploits from a character who had died in previous chapters or had not even been born yet. Writing a novel this way leaves a margin for error large enough to drive a truck through, but Jones weaves these fragments into a whole with expert precision.
Some would argue that the story is about Henry Townsend, a free black slave-owner. Others would call this a record of the trials heaped upon his widow Caldonia after his demise. In truth, there really is no true star of this show. Actually, there is one major player: Integrity. The light-skinned teacher Fern refuses to pass for white and insists on staying true to her foolishly unfaithful and inept husband. Field-hand Elias forsakes his running ways to stay close to the woman he loves. Henry crusades the hope of his people by owning slaves and pledging them lives of relative comfort lest they discover true hell beneath the crackling whips of inhuman white masters. His father, Augustus, disowns his son for this very reason, never relenting to the ideal of slavery under any circumstances. White sheriff Skiffington uses the word of God to keep him on the righteous path. Mr. Robbins, the most powerful man in the county, rules the land with a slack fist, insuring fairness for both sides – but with his own point of view. These people have deep backgrounds and strong personalities, driving this stellar novel toward infinite potential, heeded only by the eventual meeting between reader and the inside back cover.
The depictions of slavery inside are harsh, unjust, hopeful and proud. I’ve read more torturous accounts on slavery in books about slavery. This is not that book. The very essence of the piece can be summed up from the solitary existence of Moses the overseer, a fiercely complex presence from the mind of Mr.Jones. On the first page, he is strong, in charge, filled with a selfish duty to his lot. So much so that he eats dirt to gauge the lay of the land for harvest time. Somewhere in the middle, he’s filled with ambition and hope for a life that seemed out of reach before, having eaten precious, priceless fruit from the forbidden tree. And on the last page, broken, lame and alone, Moses is a beaten man without even enough will or care to eat anything at all. How many people from that era, existing through the imagination of God knew what that was like? A lot, I’m sure.