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The Known World    by Edward P. Jones Amazon.com order for
Known World
by Edward P. Jones
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

Edward P. Jones was a Finalist for both the National Book Critic's Circle Award and the National Book Award for his debut collection of short stories, Lost in the City. He was also Pulitzer Prize Winner for this novel, The Known World. Jones is a new talent who is taking off with a flourish. How wonderful it must be to be able to express oneself in such a moving way.

Henry Townsend's parents bought their son's freedom from his and their own previous owner, William Robbins, an antebellum Virginia landowner. Mildred and Augustus Townsend were later distressed when their son Henry became a slave owner himself! The Known World tells Henry's tale his life as a slave, his freedom, his marriage, his holdings, and, finally, his death. The story, while captivating, is not what is important here. Although the novel touches on a subject of which I was unaware - blacks owning blacks - what makes this book different is the manner of the telling. The intermingling of whites, blacks and Indians is presented honestly and as though the reader were living it. No holds are barred.

Slavery, as we know, was not a life of leisure. The author works his slaves from dawn to dusk, as did their masters. They live in shacks with dirt floors and without windows. Their clothes are little better than rags. Medical care is almost non-existent. Become one of the slaves on Robbins' plantation. Ride with the night patrollers. Listen to the arguments in the slave quarters. Learn of their methods of survival, which become yours. Glory in their joys. Suffer their heartbreak. Wonder at the inhumanity of man. Suffer the anguish of a black man caught by slave catchers and transported far away from his home and loved ones to be sold as a slave.

I became a trifle confused at first, trying to keep all the characters straight. But I soon fell into the pace of the plot and into these people's lives. The content made this a hard book to read, but it's a masterful piece of writing. The Known World is a must-read.

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