Best Book of the Week!
I found The Known World disorienting for some time. I think this was because the standard blurb describes it as being about Henry Townsend, an African-American owner of slaves who is mentored by his white owner. The novel starts with Henry Townsend’s death, and I kept waiting for it to circle back around and cover his history. But it’s not so much about him as about the world around him. Once I settled in to the world Jones creates, I began to appreciate the novel.
Henry Townsend’s act of becoming a slave owner is so shocking to his parents that they refuse to stay in the house he built with his slave, Moses. His parents, Augustus and Mildred Townsend, worked hard to buy themselves and their son free. Augustus at one point muses that he may have made a mistake in buying Mildred first, leaving Henry too long under the influence of William Robbins, his white master and the richest man in the county. We actually don’t see much mentoring going on between Robbins and Henry, except when Robbins chides Henry for rough-housing with his new slave Moses.
Jones’ focus is on a larger story than that of one man. His story is about the life on Henry Townsend’s plantation and in the county and how it is affected by slavery—particularly by the decision of African-Americans to own slaves.
At first, I found it difficult to keep all the characters straight—or even the timeframe—for Jones has a habit of fixing on a character for a brief moment and telling about that character’s entire life. He also interjects facts and census details about Manchester County. These details are so convincing that he had me believing it was a real place. It is not.
This nonlinear narrative means we don’t fully know any one character. Henry himself is one of the biggest enigmas, and we see more of his slave Moses than we do of Henry himself. Certainly, a handful of characters are more important than others, but that handful keeps changing. Still, some threads of the people’s stories are captivating, and even surprising. Does Augustus, kidnapped by unscrupulous slave dealers when he is returning from a job, ever see his home again? Did Moses actually murder his wife Priscilla in hopes of marrying Henry’s widow?
If I had to state briefly the theme of this unusual novel, I would say that slavery corrupts. Characters who start out with good intentions do despicable things because they have absolute power over other people. When we see the effect of the “institution” of slavery on people, especially upon Henry’s blameless parents, it is sometimes shocking.
There are true villains in this novel but no heroes. Some of the characters are doing the best they can; others are not.