THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones
Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book’em.....take our poll!
(January 6, 2005) What does a reader expect of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel? Quality writing, possibly challenging text, a substantive topic, and that “it will be worthwhile” to read? With that, Book-‘Em selected The Known World by Edward P. Jones, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer. Our assumptions were met.
This is a complex novel of overlapping plot lines, continuous time shifts and a multitude of characters. (Note: do try to obtain the edition with a master key of the characters at the back.) The novel is set in a pre-civil war Virginia county and focuses on the Townsend Plantation inhabitants. Henry Townsend, a former slave himself, is the proud owner of these 50 acres (and 33 slaves!) “that sat him high above many others, white, black, and Indian.” It is this obscure historical institution of black slaveholders that captures a reader’s attention and directs reaction to this book.
Understated language contrasts with the deprivation, cruelty, ambiguity, and often, brutality of a slave’s life. This is the dramatic strength of The Known World. Our discussion did reveal the significant concern, however, that Jones readily admits this is a work of his own imagination only; the author did no research on the subject. This is its weakness.
Key to our evening’s discussion (and musings as we read) was whether we, or history, could judge black slave owners differently than white ones. Very mixed sentiments emerged. Ultimately, the group concluded that the question was irrelevant. Despite societal norms and practices, prevailing legislation or community opinion, the horror and immorality of slavery just is! Our “correspondence member” eloquently e-mailed us: “No matter how you look at it, slavery pollutes all human relationships and everyone who participates.”
Another interesting and equally lively dialogue centered on the idea of how people “know” their worlds. Members again expressed very different views. Some felt that the slaves did not know any world beyond their limited and insular plantation, while people today have a far wider variety of experiences and interactions, in part through the media. Yet others felt that we are not so different after all. Our knowledge of the “world” today remains contextual to our own community and personal lives.
Jones offers no judgments of his own on these pages and provides little direction to his readers. One member ended the book in tears at its overwhelming sadness while another expressed relief that the novel’s final tone was hopeful. A third felt frustrated by the abrupt “non-ending.” Clearly, the range of thoughts and feelings evoked suggest the power of this fiction.
Most Book-‘Em members expressed reservations about personally recommending
The Known World to friends seeking “a good read,”
because while worthwhile, it is a “hard” book. Uniformly however,
we would recommend it to your group for its ability to generate thoughtful
and stimulating discussion. As one member noted,” It’s not
often this group can stay focused and not degenerate into socializing.”
And we can’t be the only book group with that problem!
FROM THE EDITORS: Find reviews contributed by other local book clubs at: www.larchmontgazette.com. We'd love to hear from other Larchmont book clubs and readers; email us at email@example.com.