“The hitter can never be the judge. Only the receiver of the blow can tell you how hard it was, whether it would kill a man or make a baby just yawn.”
I first found this book when I was browsing for interesting historical fiction novels back in January. The story itself about a black farmer and former slave in the US of the 19th century sounded interesting and I decided to get a copy. After many months of collecting dust, I finally had the chance to read The Known World for the Dusting Off The Shelf Read-A-Thon. Unfortunately it wasn’t as good as I thought it would be… Don’t get me wrong, the story itself is definitely worth reading. It’s just that Edward P. Jones seemed to be wanting to include the stories of too many slaves and their owners, and the change in POV was confusing at some points. The fact that he wasn’t following a straight timeline didn’t help either, and it slowed down my reading considerately. If you don’t like keeping track of many characters and timelines, this book is definitely not for you. But if you like reading more about the situation of slaves and former slaves in the US before the Civil War, this one is still quite interesting.
In The Known World, we mainly follow the story of Henry Townsend and his family. Henry is a black farmer and former slave who is now one of the few black slaveholders in the South. His former slave owner, William Robbins, has always favored him and helps him by selling him the first slave named Moses. Robbins is a very powerful man in Manchester County, and uses his influence to help him build and expand his farm. Henry’s parents don’t agree with his choice of owning slaves after all that took his father Augustus to finally buy them free. He doesn’t give in though, and when he dies at an unfortunate young age, he leaves his widow Caldonia in charge with quite a few slaves.
We read a lot about the years where Henry grows up being a slave of Robbins. His father bought himself free early in the story, but it took him years to buy his wife and son free as well. Henry worked close to Robbins during those years, and Robbins took a liking to the boy. Important to know about the slaveholder is that he has a black mistress and two children with the same woman. He is thus not the typical white slave owner and symphatises Henry in a way others might haven’t. When Augustus finally gets a chance to buy his son free, Henry keeps in touch with Robbins, and later starts his own farm close to the one he had worked as a slave. The Known World is also about the slaves Henry owns; different families all with their own problems. A few try to escape, others try to win over their owners. Caldonia doesn’t seem up to the task of holding the farm together when Henry dies, and the County has to jump in and intervene.
The Known World is an interesting book if you can ignore the multiple POV’s and the sometimes dense prose and suitable for those who enjoy historical fiction. It’s about the cruelty of the white officers, trying to make money out of selling free slaves, and violence used on innocent people. And it’s also about hope and a future without slavery… And the lives of those who still are slaves.