Monday, August 4, 2008

Where Nothing is Black and White

The Known World by Edward P. Jones was written in 2003. Now five years later, there already is a collegiate study guide for it. I used to think study guides were only written on great books of antiquity studied closely in colleges and universities. The rules for writing study guides haven't changed.  This is a great book.

The Known World is deep, complex and moving.  This is a story of freed black men and women owning who own plantations and their own slaves in antebellum Virginia. It is also a story of the white men and women slaveowners as well as those who did not.  And it is most definitely a story of the slaves themselves.

If you expect a story filled with rancor and hatred towards the slave owners, you won't find it here.  And if you think this will be a tale of retribution of any sort, that isn't here either.  This is a story framed in a time that is hard for us to imagine now and how these people coped day to day in this perspective. 

The story that is presented is one of great human contradiction and irony.  We can see that looking in from above.  In fact, this is still the story of humankind, eh?  Aren't we great oxymorons ourselves in many ways?  Aren't we tragically flawed yet capable of great moments ourselves?  What makes this novel so compelling is the framework that the characters live in. 

This is a somewhat difficult novel to get into for a couple of reasons. There are a large ensemble of major characters and it takes a little work to keep them straight. Each character has a "main" story and the author tells each one in great detail.  In a way, these are short stories of some dozen characters interwoven in a kind of quilt.  The metaphoric quilt is at the center core of these stories.  So, you might have to re-read an earlier part of the book, or in my case, listen again to an earlier disc to untangle the story.

Also, the stories does not follow a strict chronological progression. It begins in 1850, but jumps ahead to the late 19th century and back some 20 years or more. More than a few times. This slowed me down as well.

I would advise you to stick with it though, and do re-reading if necessary to get these characters and stories firmly down. Each is unforgettable and all have a compelling story. You'll learn who they are oftentimes from simple, banal life life events they participate in. And sometimes from extraordinary, shocking events and their reactions to these events. By the end of the novel, you will feel that you know these people personally -- that's how vivid they become.

You'll find no real heroes, and no real villains here. You will find all-too-human humans struggling in situations made more difficult by the code of the dying Old South. No one escapes the pain of living -- black or white, free or slave. On the other hand, there are simple joys to marvel at for the lowest of the lowest slaves and for most wealthy of the plantation owners.

And if you are like me, you'll long ponder the insoluble ironies that many characters present. Characters like Sheriff John Skiffington, wealthy slave owner Williams Robbins, and slave owner Henry Thompson, who himself is black. You will be shocked at some of the despicable, inhumane deeds perpetrated by both white men and black men alike on each other. There are great mysteries embodied in people like Moses the black overseer, of Alice the crazy slave, and of Minerva, the daughter/slave of the sheriff.  This is great tragedy presented by Augustus and his wife who are freed blacks and the parents of the "main" character Henry.  I use quotation marks because the story opens as the central figure Henry is dying at 31 years old.  

I could go on, but instead I will urge you to go on and read this book.  Or listen to it. I listened to an unabridged recorded version during my long commutes to work, and the Recorded Books version is very well done.

I highly recommend The Known World to anyone who loves great storytelling in historical context.

1 comment:

  1. One of the most disturbing books I've read in the last year. Adds new complexity to the poisonous effects and after-effects of slavery.