by Julie HaleAugust, 2004
The Known World
Readers of Edward P. Jones' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel are likely to find it nothing short of revelatory. The foundation of the book the institution of slavery as practiced between blacks is a little-mentioned bit of history that makes the South's tempestuous past seem even stormier than before. Set in 1850s Virginia, the novel focuses on Henry Townsend, a free black man, and his wife Caldonia. The two buy a slave to serve as overseer on their new farm an odd transaction for Henry, himself a former slave, but one Virginia society seems to take in stride. The book features a broad cast of characters that includes Sheriff John Skiffington, who opposes the owning of slaves but doggedly fulfills his duty of apprehending those who escape, and William Robbins, Henry's vicious former master, who has fallen in love with a black woman. Conflating traditional notions of freedom and bondage, Jones offers a unique vision of history. A reading group guide is available online at www.harpercollins.com.