Reviews for Known World
Booklist Reviews 2003 September #2
/*Starred Review*/ Henry Townsend, born a slave, is purchased and freed by his father, yet he remains attached to his former owner, even taking lessons in slave owning when he eventually buys his own slaves. Townsend is part of a small enclave of free blacks who own slaves, thus offering another angle on the complexities of slavery and social relations in a Virginia town just before the Civil War. His widow, Caldonia, grief-stricken and more conflicted about slavery than Henry was, fails to maintain the social order. Also caught in the miasma of slavery is Sheriff John Skiffington, an honorable man who, when presented with a slave as a marriage gift, spends the remainder of his marriage, along with his wife, dithering about how to deal with the girl and ends up treating her like a daughter. These are only a few of the deftly portrayed characters in this elegantly written novel that explores the interweaving of sex, race, and class. Jones moves back and forth in time, making the reader omniscient, knowing what will eventually befall the characters despite their best and worst efforts, their aspirations and their moral failings. This is a profoundly beautiful and insightful look at American slavery and human nature. ((Reviewed September 15, 2003)) Copyright 2003 Booklist Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2003 July #2
Slave-owning by free blacks in antebellum America is the astonishingly rich subject of this impressively researched, challenging novel debut by Faulkner Award-winning Jones (stories: Lost in the City, 1992).Set mostly in the period 1830-50, many nested and interrelated stories revolve around the death of black Virginia farmer and slaveholder Henry Townsend, himself a former slave who had purchased his own freedom, as was-and did-his father Augustus, a gifted woodcarver. Jones's flexible narrative moves from the travail of Augustus and his wife Mildred through Henry's conflicted life as both servant and master, to survey as well the lives of Armstrong slaves, from their early years on to many decades after Henry's passing. The first hundred pages are daunting, as the reader struggles to sort out initially quickly glimpsed characters and absorb Jones's handling of historical background information (which virtually never feels obtrusive or oppressive, thanks to his eloquent prose and palpable high seriousness). The story steadily gathers overpowering momentum, as we learn more about such vibrant figures as Henry's introspective spouse Caldonia, his wily overseer Moses, the long-suffering mutilated slave Elias and his crippled wife Celeste, the brutal "patrollers" charged with hunting down runaways (one of whom, duplicitous Harvey Travis, is a villain for the ages), and county sheriff John Skiffington, a decent man who nevertheless cannot shrug off "responsibilities" with which his culture has provisioned, and burdened, him. The particulars and consequences of the "right" of humans to own other humans are dramatized with unprecedented ingenuity and intensity, in a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice-even during a prolonged climax when two searches produce bitter results and presage the vanishing of a "known world" unable to isolate itself from the shaping power of time and change.This will mean a great deal to a great many people. It should be a major prize contender, and it won't be forgotten.Author tour. Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit Copyright Kirkus 2003 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews August #1
This ambitious first novel by National Book Award nominee Jones (Lost in the City: Stories) looks at slavery from an unusual angle. Henry Townsend is a former slave who was purchased and freed by his own father. Through hard work, he has acquired 50 acres of farmland in Virginia. Given the slave-based agricultural economy, Townsend believes that the logical (and legal) way to work the land is with slaves, and, eventually, he owns more than 30. Although he is less brutal than his neighbors, most of his slaves dream of escaping north. When they try, Townsend must pay the white patrollers to return them or be seen as irresponsible. But as rumors of bloody slave rebellions spread through the South, unscrupulous bounty hunters begin to round up free blacks, Native Americans, and white orphans along with the escapees. By focusing on an African American slaveholder, Jones forcefully demonstrates how institutionalized slavery jeopardized all levels of civilized society so that no one was really free. A fascinating look at a painful theme, this book is an ideal choice for book clubs. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/03.]-Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2003 May #2
The author of National Book Award nominee Lost in the City, Jones ventures into fiction with this story of antebellum Virginia, where freed slave Henry Townsend has a plantation-and slaves of his own. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2003 August #2
In a crabbed, powerful follow-up to his National Book Award-nominated short story collection (Lost in the City), Jones explores an oft-neglected chapter of American history, the world of blacks who owned blacks in the antebellum South. His fictional examination of this unusual phenomenon starts with the dying 31-year-old Henry Townsend, a former slave-now master of 33 slaves of his own and more than 50 acres of land in Manchester County, Va.-worried about the fate of his holdings upon his early death. As a slave in his youth, Henry makes himself indispensable to his master, William Robbins. Even after Henry's parents purchase the family's freedom, Henry retains his allegiance to Robbins, who patronizes him when he sets up shop as a shoemaker and helps him buy his first slaves and his plantation. Jones's thorough knowledge of the legal and social intricacies of slaveholding allows him to paint a complex, often startling picture of life in the region. His richest characterizations-of Robbins and Henry-are particularly revealing. Though he is a cruel master to his slaves, Robbins is desperately in love with a black woman and feels as much fondness for Henry as for his own children; Henry, meanwhile, reads Milton, but beats his slaves as readily as Robbins does. Henry's wife, Caldonia, is not as disciplined as her husband, and when he dies, his worst fears are realized: the plantation falls into chaos. Jones's prose can be rather static and his phrasings ponderous, but his narrative achieves crushing momentum through sheer accumulation of detail, unusual historical insight and generous character writing. Agent, Eric Simonoff. (Sept.) Forecast: This is a new tack for Jones, whose collection Lost in the City was set in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s and '70s. Amistad is sending the novel off with a bang-a 10-city author tour, a 20-city national radio campaign-and it should attract considerable review attention. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.