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Henry Townsend is a black man living in the American South (in Virginia) 20 years before the Civil War. He is the free son of parents who are freed slaves.
His father, a skilled woodworker, holds especially strong convictions about the evils of slavery. Imagine what this poor man feels when his son Henry grows up to idolize a white man who is the most powerful slave-owner in the county. Even worse, Henry gets his own plantation and buys his own black slaves!
When Henry dies suddenly, his widow Caldonia struggles to hang on to his legacy. Soon Henry's empire starts to unravel as Henry's slaves start asserting their own complex personalities.
The author follows the destiny of several characters, detailing their adventures in rich, sweeping prose. The story of one character in particular - Counsel, a white man who sets fire to his lands in the wake of smallpox and roams west into Texas - rivals the fiction of Cormac McCarthy in terms of epic surrealism. A not-to-be-missed book, especially for aficionados of antebellum and Civil War stories.
This was a difficult read taking place in the South before theCivil War. The tale of Negroes owned by other Negroes and the tribulations of being property owned by others. I found the cruelty and heartlessness unbearable. I know it was fiction but there’s a lot of truth in this novel.
Reading this felt like sitting down and listening to someone telling me a story about the old ways and people in an old town. As if I asked, whatever happened here, and the answer came from a rambling but good story teller with great factual knowledge of the times. The perspective of sharing the story of free black who owned slaves was unique and provided a different kens on this terrible part of American history. It was a story about a small town and what happened to it and those who were there. Imagery was good and the characters were well developed. The only critique is that it was sometimes difficult to track where in time the story was, but that underscored the telling of it- like listening to an old relative tell you that family history. If it were linear it wouldn't be as good.
This was an educational read. It does a great job of letting the reader know about what it was like to be a slave slightly before the Civil War. Interestingly, one of the key characters was a slave owner, who was himself a former slave. I was unaware that there was much of that going on. The writer really knows how write in a way that holds you interest.
"The Known World" is the author's first novel eleven years after publishing an anthology of short stories, "Lost in the City." The names, locations, and characters are all fictional and created in his mind during eleven years of planning. The depth of detail of the plantation in Manchester County has been compared with Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. The Mirage Book Club members' take on the book was mixed and atypical. One member liked the first chapter but not the rest of the book; the second member was impressed with the images and descriptions of the scenes but not the meandering of the narration; some said the book was well written and explored an unknown view of slavery; a few were very impressed with the book: "Jones did a very good job discussing and disclosing slavery, and the title of the book was very fitting," said one member. "And the non-linear story telling and consistent narration was constructed masterfully." another member said, "There are two major considerations here: 1. the system [slavery] is unchangeable and slaves have no choice but to comply, and 2. unlike Faulkner's South who represents only whites, Jones writes about blacks too, as did Ernest Gray and a few other African-American writers."
"The book was tedious to read yet some characters were interesting; Alice was stunning," said a member. "I didn't believe the story." next person read the whole book and found it informative, "A pleasant way to write about slavery." Another member was not convinced, "Winning the Pulitzer Prize could be a political matter." But another person found the book very interesting and enjoyable to read. "I liked Fern Alston, a noble person in a deeply corrupted political society." A member who likes every book she reads said, "I learn something from the book we read, though this one was a very different read, I liked the characters especially Augustus and Alice [she was crazy but she was fun]; but another member found the characters unreal and the descriptions tedious. "The prose was well constructed but the dialogues were excessive and inconsequential." A doctor/member listened to the audio version. "The author is telling a very believable story," said he, "An untold version of slavery." The moderator's husband talked about the voice, the writing style, and the dialogues. "This book compares well to the notable novels about slavery," said he, "The author is African-American and when he was working on his M.F.A. in creative writing in Boston he read an article about a few black citizens of the South who were slave-owners. Then he collected shelves of books about slavery, the stories about the slaves who were ill, pregnant, and crippled or hobbled but still forcefully worked six days a week from sunrise to sunset," said he. "The author also collected stories from the earliest published black writers many of whom were slaves and abolitionists. The voice is constant and the narrator is omniscient, he is everywhere, sees everything, and knows what's going on in every cabin.
The hand-full of genes that determine a person's skin color are nothing compared to all the genes that give us a common human nature. Skin color was a local adaptation to the environment, facilitating the optimum balance of folic acid and vitamin D. This book, while fiction, illustrates the commonness of our natures. The genetically-provided ambition for status, money, and power (assisted by our impressive abilities to rationalize) operates at different levels for us all. Add in the levels of competition, and the scarcity of opportunity in that society, and the room for complexity emerges. A central part of this book concerns a man who's freedom is purchased by his parents when he is a child. This free-black Henry finds his path to "bettering himself" lies through the purchase and domination of slaves of his own; he rationalizes he will be "the best master". The many ways slavery and status can play in such a fluid situation is well illustrated by the interplay of plot lines throughout this story. It is the interplay of the variations that makes this book superb.
This book was a recommended reading for our book club. This book, at first, seemed to be a collection of short stories in which all of the characters are related. I admire the fact that this author decided to tackle the subject of blacks owning slaves, particularly one who'd been a slave. Wow! That in itself should grasp the reader's attention.
Yet, because there were so many characters, because the plots were so detailed, because the narrative seemed to ramble in places, the book was --at first -- difficult to read. I doubt I would have finished it had it not been my book club's selected reading. After about 200 plus pages, the author beautifully weaved all of the stories together.
This book is well worth reading, but make sure you continue to the very end so that you can fully appreciate its awesomeness.