The Known World by Edward P. Jones

23rd May 2010

“The boy filled up the whole piece of wood and at the end of the last line he put a period. His father’s grave would remain, but the wooden marker would not last out  the year. The boy knew better than to put a period at the end of such a sentence. Something that was not even a true and proper sentence, with subject aplenty, but  no verb to pull it all together. A sentence, Matthew’s teacher back in Virginia had tried to drum into his thick Kinsey head, could live without a subject, but it could  not live without a verb.”

Edward P. Jones novel The Known World is about legacy. Just as quilts made by African Americans during the time of slavery visually document the happenings of  their lives, Jones follows the town of Manchester in Virginia and the people living there in the years leading up to the Civil War. Augustus and Mildred Townsend are slaves on William Robbins’  plantation. Augustus is a talented woodworker and carpenter and is allowed to do work off the plantation with a commission to Robbins. In so doing, he is able to  buy his own freedom, later his wife’s, and then much later his son’s freedom. Henry Townsend, their son, grows to be a favorite of Mr. Robbins, Robbins thinking  of him almost as a favorite son. Henry is smart and hardworking, so Robbins continually ups the price Henry’s parents owe to free him. Left with his mother’s  friend, Rita, Henry seems to sometimes be resentful of the parents who love him and are working for him. Once freed, Augustus asks him how he feels, and Henry  answers that he feels no different. Augustus tells him: “You don’t have to ask anybody how to feel. You can just go on and do whatever it is you want to feel. Feel  sad, go on and feel sad. Feel happy, you go on and feel happy…. this freedom situation. It’s big and little, yes and no, up and down, all at the same time.”

Henry grows up, making shoes and boots and making a nice living on his own and then proceeds to … buy a slave. As the census worker tells the reader, “in 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were thirty-four free black families, with a mother and father and one child or more, and eight of those free families owned slaves, and all eight knew one another’s business.” Henry tells his parents, and Mildred “went through her memory for the time, for the day, she and her husband told him all about what he should and should not do….Pick the blueberries close to the ground, son. Them the sweetest, I find. If a white man say the trees can talk, can dance, you just say yes right along, that you done seen em do it plenty of times. Don’t look them people in the eye. You see a white woman ridin toward you, get way off the road and go stand behind a tree. The uglier the white woman, the farther you go and the broader the tree. But where, in all she taught her son, was it about thou shall own no one, havin been owned once your own self. Don’t go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there.”

Aside from a former slave owning slaves, the other fascinating aspect of this narrative is that the narrative voice is constantly introducing characters and telling the reader of that character’s future and demise, then leaving the character and continuing with the main story – furthering each character’s legacy as the reader waits to get back to hear how the character arrives at his or her end. The tangible fear and anxiety Jones creates in Manchester County and its inhabitants makes the reader constantly aware of what that time and place must have been like. Jones reinforces the concept that we are only as free as someone above us thinks we are and how dangerous and thin a line there is between freedom and bondage.

Weaving the lives of men and women, free, slave, passing, white, black, good and evil, Jones creates an effecting novel of legacy and heritage and memory, much like one character describes a work of art:

…people were viewing an enormous wall hanging, a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure – all in one exquisite Creation, hanging silent and yet songful on the Eastern wall. It is … a kind of map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia. But a “map” is such a poor word for such a wondrous thing. It is a map of life made with every kind of art man has ever thought to represent himself. Yes, clay. Yes, paint. Yes, cloth. There are no people on this “map,” just all the houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells in our Manchester…There are matters in my memory that I did not know were there until I saw them on that wall….[and] I sank to my knees.

**Thanks to Kinna Reads for reviewing Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, which is how I found this book in the library.