The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Book Review

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The Known World

4 Stars

Henry Townsend is a former slave. His old owner took a liking to Henry and so has helped him out in his shoe-making business. Henry eventually makes enough money to build his own small plantation house and to start buying his own slaves. The book begins with Henry’s death and skips around in time to explore questions about race, slavery, and freedom.

This wasn’t exactly my kind of book, but I did enjoy it. The writing was a little stark for me, but on reflection I realized that this style was probably the only appropriate style for the subject matter. There were kind of a lot of characters and I had a little bit of a hard time keeping them all straight. They also weren’t really all that well-developed, but that wasn’t really the point of the book.

I don’t really have a whole lot to say about the book. I will say this: I hate writing reviews of books that touch on race. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Southerner or if all Americans have this problem, but I’m always afraid that I’m going to write something offensive without meaning to. I hate that. I hate that we all have to walk on eggshells on this issue. Not that we shouldn’t–I am glad that we’re becoming more aware of our behaviors and trying to correct them. We are making progress, I just wish that the issues that exist didn’t exist and we didn’t have to worry about it at all.

That being said, the issues do exist and one of the only ways we can get any perspective is by reading these kinds of books that make us think about race issues and at least try to get an idea what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. This book was excellent for that. I started off wondering, “How on earth does a former slave make peace with himself when he’s buying more slaves?” I walked away from the book sort of understanding. Part of it seems to be that people tend to need someone to look down on. We’re imperfect, and most of us probably wish that it didn’t work this way, but that’s the way it does tend to be. The biggest part seemed to be that by becoming a slave owner, Henry gave himself one more layer of security between himself and his own slave years.

Reviewed July 4, 2008

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Friday Flashback Reviews are a weekly feature here on The Introverted Reader. These are old reviews I wrote on GoodReads. Thanks to Angieville and her Retro Friday Reviews for the inspiration and encouragement!

I have an affiliate relationship with IndieBound and Better World Books and will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site.

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