Saturday, July 4, 2009

Book Seven: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Slavery is an abhorrent reality that is hard to imagine being more despicable than what most of us have already learned about the "peculiar institution." Edward Jones throws a new twist at us when he writes a book about a slave-owning black man. Indeed, there are instances in which this did occur, but Jones notes in an interview (in my edition of the book) that it was likely rare.

This book is an intricately weaved story which breaks from a straight linear plot indicating that ideas are more important than the timeline. Henry Townsend is the slave owning black man and the book opens with his death, but his life comes back to us as times. He is, interestingly enough, a former slave bought from slavery by his father, who had earned his own freedom and that of his wife years before. These are people who understand the nature of slavery and have endured it, so the fact that Henry would choose to enslave others is surprising to say the least. We never get a good understanding of why he does this other than that is what people do -- it is not an issue of race, but of power.

His first slave and a central character is Moses, a person who embodies what slavery can do to a person's character. Jones does an outstanding job with how we as readers see Moses throughout the story, and the change we see can be attributed to us either learning more about him, or the fact that the person we see is changing. Either way, Jones avoids stereotypical portrayals of people throughout the novel which makes it more difficult to dismiss someone as ignorant because we disagree with them.

The new question this leaves us (okay, me) with is whether slavery is any more evil when practiced by a former slave? It seems especially insidious for someone who has served as a slave to subject others to this status. Yet what we see in this story and other narratives were that many slaves accepted the institution as a part of life, so why not continue in it from a power perspective when able? I return again to the idea of race vs. power. It was not the racism inherent in slavery which bothers Henry, it is the lack of power. If he focuses the experience as an individual struggle then he can simply see his position of master as evidence of someone overcoming the odds. If he were to focus on the nature of the institution, he could not rationalize what he has done -- he would now be a contributing member of an evil institution instead of a successful businessman.

A book well worth reading for many reasons. First, learning more about slavery makes us more aware of how our country was built. This book does not offer many happy endings, which is more reflective of slavery than some stories would have us think. Second, this is a well written book. As I mentioned, Jones does a great job with characters. He also has a knack for the well written sentence. It is not an "easy read," but it is a full read. Third, the book raises new ways to consider "old" issues, such as race and power. Fourth (and finally), anyone looking for strong women characters will find an abundance in this book (although I failed to mention them of course).

Reading Challenges
This turned out to be tougher than I thought and for a while I was worried I would break my one book per week goal. I was on vacation this week and that actually makes things tougher. Of course, visiting Traverse City where we had 49 hours of rain in the 48 hours we were there (with a high temp. of 60) meant that no one had a reason to stay up late so I was able to keep up. I spent more hours reading this book than any other one in the past couple of months and I've learned to steal 30 minutes here and there.

Next Up
A little fun and two books to boot! I'll be reading The Hound of the Baskervilles and then a book called Sherlock Holmes was Wrong about how Holmes messed up the Baskerville case. I went off on my Sherlock Holmes fascination last week so I'll not repeat it, but I'm looking forward to these two books.

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