Book Review by Moira Cue
The Known World is about racial ambiguity in the pre-Civil War South, in a time when a minority of free blacks owned slaves themselves. Set in Manchester County, Virginia, in 1855, the book takes it's title from what we know today to be an inaccurate map displayed with those words inscribed. According to the book, there were thirty four free black families in that county that year, eight of whom owned slaves, and "knew one other's business."
Henry Townsend, though black, was given an apprenticeship and learned to make boots and other carpentry skills. His white owner, Robbins, later became more of a mentor when Henry earned enough to purchase his own freedom, and then began to purchase other slaves to help him run a plantation profitably.
Henry's early demise at the beginning of the book, unfortunately, leads to the unravelling of the small empire he spent his life trying to build. Henry was a politically significant character, and his absence is a loss for other upper class and free blacks in a post Nat Turner, pre-Civil War time when poor whites and others not directly involved in slavery nonetheless wanted to see blacks put "in their place."
Characters like Alice the Night Walker, an emotionally and mentally challenged outcast whose behavior includes chanting about oranges and dead babies, and Stamford, "the seeker of young stuff," are left under the ineffectual aegis of Henry's too-kind widow, Caldonia. As traveling bounty hunters encroach first on the trail of "runaway" slaves, free men begin to disappear and be sold as slaves, which was illegal, even by low standard of the law under the corrupt system of slavery. But the balance of power after Henry's death has shifted away from those who would allow any man with the ability to capitalize upon the organization of human labor to do so regardless of his race to a mob mentality that no black should do better than a white, and that blacks should remain uneducated.
The author of this critically acclaimed novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction in 2004, after receiving an MFA in Creative Writing, took a day job as a business writer for a nonprofit organization which lasted 19 years before he was laid off. He used his immediate unemployment benefits to write the first draft of the novel, and beat the overwhelming odds to not only get published, but become an overnight literary celebrity. Yet, far from letting the spotlight go to his head, Jones has never owned an automobile and prefers to ride the bus. After all, it's better for the environment.
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