Nubian Circle Book Club

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The Known World Book Review

Phyllis Rhodes

Edward P. Jones's The Known World is a complex, multidimensional story of the interrelationships among slaves, Indians, black and white masters, patrollers, husbands and wives in an antebellum setting in fictional Manchester County, Virginia.  The catalyst of the story is the death of Henry Townsend, a former slave who is mentored by his former owner, William Robbins, the most powerful man in the county.  William Robbins has a white wife and children as well as a black mistress and children with her.  It is no secret to anyone in the county that he spends time with both but prefers the black family, even to the point of educating his black children and his favorite slave, Henry.  Henry's father saves money for nearly fifteen years to purchase his own freedom, his wife's and eventually his son's.  However, as the years pass, Robbins's  influence over Henry is gripping.  After his father's purchase of him, Henry reluctantly leaves Robbin's plantation to live with his parents, but returns to the plantation to visit often.  He grows up into a headstrong young man only to purchase land near his former owner.  Under Robbin's tutelage, Henry purchases slaves for his farm against the wishes of his outraged parents who detest human bondage regardless of the master's race.  When Henry dies young, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to grief, and the "known world" of Manchester County begins to unravel.  Henry's most "loyal" slaves run toward freedom and the black Caldonia must resort to hiring white and Indian patrollers to reclaim her property.  The complexities are heightened by the affair that ensues between Caldonia and her black overseer, the illegal capture and sale of Henry's father back into slavery by roving "speculators," and the final outcome of all the key characters and Manchester County itself.

The author's storytelling style is interesting as he often reveals the entire history of a character including the trials, tribulations, and sometimes his/her untimely demise before the character acts in the present.  Thus the reader can quickly surmise that particular character's insecurities, motivation, and vulnerabilities. The book is filled with numerous characters, many more than are mentioned in this review; all are similarly interesting and engaging as the aforementioned.  For example, Jones also provides an excellent depiction of the interconnections and mindset of the slaves on Henry's plantation which are equally complex and intriguing as the other white character's relationships.  The Known World is a worthwhile read of a world created by the institution of slavery.

The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for The Known World is 3.5 out of 5 stars.  Please relay comments, questions, suggestions about this review to