The Known World is a vast, all-encompassing novel of epic proportions that sweeps across the landscape of the County of Manchester, Virginia, and presents us with a broad patchwork of life during the slave years of the 1860's. Edward P. Jones' superior storytelling keeps the reader totally engaged as he jumps backwards and forwards in time, gradually revealing the tortured and often grief-stricken lives of the various inhabitants of Manchester County, both black and white.
Slavery is threatened, and the promise of freedom is now hopeful for many blacks. The abolitionist movement is growing, but having free papers still doesn't necessarily mean much, and in a world where people believe in a God they cannot see and pretend the wind is his voice, a piece of paper often means nothing.
Full of heartache, loss, and the enduring power of the human spirit, The Known World focuses on Henry Townsend, who at 31 has achieved the kind of success, that most black folk can only dream of. Building a small fortune, Henry is now free, owns some land, and is married to Caldonia, an accomplished and educated young woman. In his early years, Henry learnt much from Williams Robbins, his white owner, and now he also owns his own slaves, seemingly without conscience.
The novel begins with Henry's quiet death, and then jumps back in time to the events leading up to the accumulation of his wealth and the sometimes-strained relationship with his parents. The story then moves forward to Caledonia's troubled handling of the estate, where she blurs the lines of behaviour, crosses boundaries, and becomes intimate with Moses, Henry's first slave. Moses, who helped Henry build the plantation years before, is now Henry's overseer, but he chooses to work among his fellow slaves. As Caldonia begins to rely heavily on Moses, Moses starts to expect his freedom.
However, things are beginning to fall apart in Manchester County. Slaves are beginning to revolt and escape, and corrupt patrollers are stealing free men back into slavery. Previously trusted slaves have become suspect, family is now turning on family, and the County's police force, chock-full of dishonesty and corruption are choosing to believe the word of white men, rather than the word of freed black slaves.
With his multi-layered and complex narrative, Jones portrays a world undergoing profound social change and upheaval. From the small, country cabins of the slaves, to the opulent drawing rooms of the wealthy white landowners, and to the bright lights and boarding houses in the cities of Richmond and Washington, the author offers an insightful, multifaceted portrait of America on the cusp of the Civil War.
The characters in The Known World are hard and tough, and driven to survive. It's a bleak world where black slave owners have begun to believe that their own salvation would flow down to their slaves, and if they themselves went to church and led exemplary lives then God would bless them and what they owned. One day they would go to heaven and so would their slaves. Mike Leonard February 05.