Summary and book reviews of The Known World by Edward Jones

The Known World

by Edward P. Jones

The Known World
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2003, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2004, 416 pages

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Book Summary

A black farmer, bootmaker and former slave becomes proprietor of his own plantation, as well as of his own slaves, in this ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges seamlessly between the past and future and back again to the present. Excerpt contains content exclusive to BookBrowse.

Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusual mentor -- William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia's Manchester County. Under Robbins's tutelage, Henry becomes proprietor of his own plantation -- as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart at their plantation: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend estate, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave "speculators" sell free black people into slavery, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years.

An ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges seamlessly between the past and future and back again to the present, The Known World weaves together the lives of freed and enslaved blacks, whites, and Indians -- and allows all of us a deeper understanding of the enduring multidimensional world created by the institution of slavery.

Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Chapter One
Liaison. The Warmth of Family.
Stormy Weather.

The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins. The young ones, his son among them, had been sent out of the fields an hour or so before the adults, to prepare the late supper and, if there was time enough, to play in the few minutes of sun that were left. When he, Moses, finally freed himself of the ancient and brittle harness that connected him to the oldest mule his master owned, all that was left of the sun was a five-inch-long memory of red orange laid out in still waves across the horizon between two mountains on the left and one on the right. He had been in the fields for all of fourteen hours. He paused before leaving the fields as the evening quiet wrapped itself about him. The mule quivered, wanting home and rest. Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Questions for Discussion
  1. Why is the character of Moses significant to the novel? How would you characterize his relationship with Henry and Caldonia Townsend? What about with his wife and child?

  2. What is the significance of the title, The Known World? What "known world" is charted in John Skiffington's map in the jail? What world is charted in The Creation described by Calvin in his letter to his sister Caldonia? What role does the land and its borders play in this book?

  3. Who is William Robbins and how does he impact the lives of blacks on neighboring plantations? Did you find his relationships with Henry, Augustus, and Mildred Townsend, and Philomena, Dora, and Louis compelling?

  4. What is the significance of the Augustus Townsend...
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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2004

  • award image

    National Book Critics Circle Award
    2003

Reviews

Media Reviews

Speakeasy

If Jones. . .keeps up this level of work, he'll equal the best fiction Toni Morrison has written about being black in America.

Newsweek

Heartbreaking....fascinating.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

With hard-won wisdom and hugely effective understatement, Mr. Jones explores the unsettling, contradiction-prone world of a Virginia slaveholder who happens to be black.

Baltimore Sun

Fascinating...poignant....[A] complex and fine novel.

San Diego Union-Tribune

The Known World is a great novel, one that may eventually be placed with the best of American Literature.

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley

This extraordinary novel -- the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years -- takes as its subject one of the most peculiar anomalies of that endlessly provocative and troubling subject In the antebellum South, where whites systematically enslaved blacks, there were free blacks who themselves owned black slaves.

The New Yorker

Jones has written a book of tremendous moral intricacy no relationship here is left unaltered by the bonds of ownership, and liberty eludes most of Manchester County's residents, not just its slaves.

Publishers Weekly

In a crabbed, powerful follow-up to his National Book Award-nominated short story collection (Lost in the City), Jones explores an oft-neglected chapter of American history, the world of blacks who owned blacks in the antebellum South.

Library Journal - Edward B St.John

A fascinating look at a painful theme, this book is an ideal choice for book clubs. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

The particulars and consequences of the right of humans to own other humans are dramatized with unprecedented ingenuity and intensity, in a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice...This will mean a great deal to a great many people. It should be a major prize contender, and it won't be forgotten.

Author Blurb Peter Matthiessen
A strong, intricate, daring book by a writer of deep compassion and uncommon gifts.

Reader Reviews

Reader

A difficult read, but well worth the effort
"The Known World" has a discursive, character driven storyline. It is challenging to read, but its exploration of timeless themes makes it well worth the effort. At times I nearly put it down, but keep reading! You will be glad you did, because ...   Read More

Carolyn Cheverine

A Known World
I enjoyed this book immensely though there are some disturbing parts. The writing style was a little disjointed as the writer would jump back and forth in periods but that also added to the story. In fact, the way he wrote the book it seemed more ...   Read More

Kay Adams-Fleig

The storyline was interesting but the writing made reading the story laborius. I started to skim through chapters and then gave up.

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