Once I stole a book…

It’s Throwback Thursday, when I rave about a book I read years ago.



The Known World

by Edward P. Jones

Once dear readers, I accidentally stole a book.  Stuck in an airport in 2004, I was of course browsing in the book store, magazine in one hand, this hefty paperback in the other.  I panicked when my long delayed flight was suddenly announced and quickly paid the cashier for the magazine, both of us oblivious to the book under my arm.  As I galloped to the gate, I mindlessly tossed the book in my bag.  Once I got on the plane, and looked at my receipt I realized the error of my ways.  I tempered my guilt by recounting the money I’d spent at this book chain (they have since gone out of business, probably due to thievery like mine). 

Turns out this lucre kept me fascinated for the entire cross country flight.  I barely looked up when the food was served. (Just imagine, once even coach passengers were served a meal on cross country plane trips.)

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel centers on a family of free blacks who run a plantation in pre-Civil War Virginia.  The Southern slave culture was so deeply embedded, that it was not considered odd (or even ironic) when freed blacks became slave holders themselves;  a little know part of American history.

Henry Townsend is a young black man living in Virginia 20 years before the Civil War — a free son of parents who were freed slaves. His father, a skilled woodworker, holds strong convictions regarding the evils of slavery.  But Henry grows up to idolize a white plantation owner and the most powerful slave-owner in the county. Much to his father’s horror, Henry purchases his own plantation and keeps black slaves.  When Henry dies unexpectedly, his widow Caldonia struggles to hang on to his legacy, but things start to unravel as the plantation slaves start to break the bonds of their servitude.

These slaves (like some others of the time) were able to buy their freedom by working in off-the-plantation enterprises such as builders, artisans, and agronomists which allowed them to earn cash. They could then pay for their own freedom as well as the price demanded for their wives and children (at full market value no less) .

The Known World is unique and some thought it a difficult read.  The novel is not chronological, but follows thematic arcs, often going back and forth in time and recounting different versions of the story line.   I didn’t find it confusing — I enjoyed being told a riveting story from several different points of view.  Mr. Jones has provided a handy list of the numerous characters in the back of the book, but I never needed it. Somehow each of the many characters are richly rendered and fleshed out.  Each character had a fine-tuned personality and it was easy to keep them separate, as I got to know each so well.

 “The Known World” is an apt title, as it represents the limiting life of a few plantations which comprised the entire world for the slaves. One master may sell a slave to a nearby neighbor; another one is freed and moves in close proximity to his former master, so that their universe rarely grew larger. Even traveling on an errand from one neighbor to another, or from the plantation to town, required the written permission of the owner. 

I can understand why Mr. Jones won the Pulitzer for this novel.  His ear for dialog, eye for detail and command of the language was a joy to this reader, against the bleak backdrop of slavery and the grim ways in which power/greed so easily corrupt.

I highly recommend The Known World, filled with rich stories and a sense of place so real, so honest – you’ll find it difficult to believe you’re reading fiction.

A copy of this novel was unknowingly provided by a large anonymous book chain, which has since gone out of business.

1 Comment

  1. sally allinger
    Mar 15, 2018

    Really enjoyed the review. Your title “Once I stole a book ” truly peaked my interest…one of the best lead-ins ever. I appreciate the information provided by this critique because, altho I want very much to read books of that caliber I find that, lately, I can’t seem to delve into ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ in forms such as slavery.

    A little murder now and then is a fine thing, but inbred cruelty and violence which goes on for generations is just so difficult to deal with..and we are, still dealing with the aftermath of those terrible wrongs even now. Love your blog…faithful reader

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