The Known World by Edward P. Jones is a wonderful book for any reader; fortunately, it also works nicely into some of Colony High’s reading requirements. Taking place in Antebellum Virginia (about 20 years previous to the Civil War), the novel has a historical element that makes it a perfect choice for the junior research project which requires a book of fiction as a beginning. At nearly 400 pages, its length serendipitously equals the length students most frequently request. Best of all, this is a book for critical thinkers as it explores the complex moral ground of slave owning.
Henry Townsend owns 33 slaves and 50 acres in Manchester County, Virginia. He is also Black and a former slave himself. His father, Augustus, purchased himself, his wife and Henry from their master, William Robbins. Robbins has a special fondness for Henry—one might say he loves Henry as a son. Because of this, the two maintain a relationship over the course of their lives. While Henry becomes a shoemaker, Robbins helps him to buy his first slaves. Robbins’ relationships are complex. He loves a black woman and has children by her, but he can be brutal to his slaves.
Henry’s relationship with his own father is strained. The elder Townsend maintains a moral ground against slaveholding and doesn’t visit his son. Henry’s wife, Caldonia has parents who also own slaves and consider them their children’s legacy. Meanwhile, Caldonia’s brother would like to free his future slaves, putting a strain on his relationship with his mother. For all the Blacks—slave and free—life is tenuous. At one point, a slave trader decides to eat the ‘free papers’ of a Black man and then sell him cheaply as a slave to anyone who won’t ask too many questions.
When Henry dies unexpectedly, Caldonia is not capable of keeping the plantation in order. She depends on the head slave for emotional support—while he hopes that she will free him and marry him–and things fall apart. The many vivid characters will keep you involved in The Known World.