What do we really Know?

Still catching up from my Winter Break readings. The husband and I had some epic travel plans for break, and I was lucky enough to get quite a bit of reading time.

I love to go to used bookstores and just rifle through the rows and stacks of books and come home with something random that just looks interesting. The Known World is one of those books. I picked it up in the used book cellar of Booksmith, a great bookstore near the apartment. I had not heard of it before, although it won the Pulitzer in 2004… I am not one who follows prize books that well. In any case, the book caught my attention and I finally got around to reading it this break.

This powerful story is probably going to end up as one of my new favorites. The story is intricately interwoven and covers a couple of generations. It is a tangle of different, complicated and very real characters who constantly grow, change and surprise the reader. I have to confess that I am not an expert of literature about slavery. So this book was something new for me, and I was completely astounded.  Edward P. Jones does something completely and totally unique with his story.

He tells a story where there is no good guy, and there is no bad guy. There is simply an entrenched belief system in which people are ranked; first by the color of their skin, and then by their ability to conform to that belief system and use it to their own success… and also, there are a few complications with relation to gender. Although with gender too, it seems that an ability to conform to the belief system and use it to your own advantage is more important than actually being male or female.

The story follows Henry Townsend and William Robbins. Townsend is a former slave of Robbins who goes on to own his own farm, and his own slaves. This story is more complicated in that Henry’s parents actually bought Henry’s freedom, and do not approve of Henry taking other people  as his own property. Robbins takes another former slave as a mistress, has two children with her, and realizes for the first time in his life, he is in love. And the thought that he has fallen in love with his slave is terrifying to him.

The story revolves around the death of Henry, the reactions of his slaves, and his wife. The story of slavery takes on an entirely more complicated presence in this novel. People of all races are placed in the social hierarchy: Rich White, Native American, Free Black, Poor White, and Slaves are all separated, and yet the book goes out of its way to show how inter-connected all of these people are. In reality there are no lines, and yet in Manchester County, Virginia where the story takes place, somehow these lines allow for a poor white man to sell a free black man back into slavery without punishment.

Heavy is the way I would describe it. It is hard to read about a master sleeping with his slave, it is hard to hear about a man legally owning his wife and children, it is devastating to learn to love a man’s life and see a drunk sell that life away.  I felt like Jones did a great job at making all of the characters come to life. Everyone is real in that, as a reader, you never know how someone is going to react. I loved that there were not stock characters, even in the minor roles.

He plays around with the idea of “craziness” and sanity quite a bit. Along with reality and perceived reality– the idea of “knowing” vs. knowing. And how these two often go hand in hand. The issue of faith is reoccurring, and in one excerpt from a letter, the theme seems very prevalent:

It is your plantation, and again, it is what God sees when He looks down. There is nothing missing, not a cabin, not a barn, not a chicken, not a horse. Not a single person is missing. I suspect that if I were to count the blades of grass, the number would be correct as it was once when the creator of this work knew that world. pp.385

The image is beautiful. Interestingly, I didn’t realize I was writing this on MLK day until just now, but it seems very fitting. There is an ideal that is being worked toward, one that we may not see now or in the near future. The issues we face as a county are never as straightforward as we try to make them, and the solutions are never easy. I suppose, if one looks at this book’s model for success we would see that not all people trying to do good succeed, but rather that intelligence can overcome ignorance. This intelligence is something people are born with, the ability to identify with others, know their surrounding and adapt to situations. The ability to do these things well and in some sort of meaningful way is the difficult part.

I’ll leave with this quote on the back of the book that I felt summed it up quite well. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,

Brilliant… So utterly original that it makes most everything previously written about slavery seem outdated and pedestrian.

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