Some people think it’s wrong to write in books, but I’m glad my daughter Mary, who gave me my copy of Edward P. Jones’ THE KNOWN WORLD, wrote the date of her gift on the title page. In 2003, I was on a mission to read as many Pulitzer Prize winning novels as I could, a project I eventually gave up because so many of them were such huge downers. THE KNOWN WORLD sat on my shelf, unread, for over fifteen years.
I scribbled (in pencil) in THE KNOWN WORLD, too, on the blank page just inside the back cover. I had to, or I couldn’t have kept the novel’s cast of characters and their relationships with each other straight.
The story, set in 1855 in fictitious Manchester County, Virginia, revolves around Henry Townsend, a Black slave owner, his family, his 33 slaves, and the handful of white people that enter their world. Henry dies, at 31, in the first chapter.
That free Black people might have owned slaves prior to the Civil War had never occurred to me, which is not surprising, as I am dumb about a lot of my country’s history. I assumed Jones did years of research in order to accurately address this topic, but I found a 2012 interview in which he said he made most of the brutal details up.
I highly recommend THE KNOWN WORLD. Jones’ writing is dense, visceral, Faulkneresque (I’m not the only one who thinks so), beautiful, masterful. As a fiction-writer myself, always struggling with point-of-view (POV), I was struck over and over by the author’s ability to switch POV not just chapter to chapter or scene to scene, but within paragraphs, successfully.
Jones, 72, doesn’t have a website. His Wikipedia pages is short on information. THE KNOWN WORLD, his only novel, won him the Pulitzer Prize at age 53, in 2004.
PS According to info on the back cover of my paperback copy, the image on the front is from the Eudora Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, reprinted by permission.