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Informative,
Difficult,
Confusing

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The Known World
by Edward P. Jones

Published: 2003
Hardcover : 388 pages
16 members reading this now
40 clubs reading this now
9 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 2 members
Henry Townsend, a black bootmaker and former slave in antebellum Virginia, becomes a proprietor of his own plantation--as well as his own slaves. This modern masterpiece explores what happens when he dies and "the known world" unravels. 2004 Pulitzer Prize Winner, ...
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Introduction

Henry Townsend, a black bootmaker and former slave in antebellum Virginia, becomes a proprietor of his own plantation--as well as his own slaves. This modern masterpiece explores what happens when he dies and "the known world" unravels. 2004 Pulitzer Prize Winner, Fiction.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

Liaison. The Warmth of Family.

Stormy Weather.

The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins. The young ones, his son among them, had been sent out of the fields an hour or so before the adults, to prepare the late supper and, if there was time enough, to play in the few minutes of sun that were left. When he, Moses, finally freed himself of the ancient and brittle harness that connected him to the oldest mule his master owned, all that was left of the sun was a five-inch-long memory of red orange laid out in still waves across the horizon between two mountains on the left and one on the right. He had been in the fields for all of fourteen hours. He paused before leaving the fields as the evening quiet wrapped itself about him. The mule quivered, wanting home and rest. Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and ate it with no more thought than if it were a spot of cornbread. He worked the dirt around in his mouth and swallowed, leaning his head back and opening his eyes in time to see the strip of sun fade to dark blue and then to nothing. He was the only man in the realm, slave or free, who ate dirt, but while the bondage women, particularly the pregnant ones, ate it for some incomprehensible need, for that something that ash cakes and apples and fatback did not give their bodies, he ate it not only to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field, but because the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life.

This was July, and July dirt tasted even more like sweetened metal than the dirt of June or May. Something in the growing crops unleashed a metallic life that only began to dissipate in mid-August, and by harvest time that life would be gone altogether, replaced by a sour moldiness he associated with the coming of fall and winter, the end of a relationship he had begun with the first taste of dirt back in March, before the first hard spring rain. Now, with the sun gone and no moon and the darkness having taken a nice hold of him, he walked to the end of the row, holding the mule by the tail. In the clearing he dropped the tail and moved around the mule toward the barn.

The mule followed him, and after he had prepared the animal for the night and came out, Moses smelled the coming of rain. He breathed deeply, feeling it surge through him. Believing he was alone, he smiled. He knelt down to be closer to the earth and breathed deeply some more. Finally, when the effect began to dwindle, he stood and turned away, for the third time that week, from the path that led to the narrow lane of the quarters with its people and his own cabin, his woman and his boy. His wife knew enough now not to wait for him to come and eat with them. On a night with the moon he could see some of the smoke rising from the world that was the lane -- home and food and rest and what passed in many cabins for the life of family. He turned his head slightly to the right and made out what he thought was the sound of playing children, but when he turned his head back, he could hear far more clearly the last bird of the day as it evening-chirped in the small forest far off to the left.

He went straight ahead, to the farthest edge of the cornfields to a patch of woods that had yielded nothing of value since the day his master bought it from a white man who had gone broke and returned to Ireland. "I did well over there," that man lied to his people back in Ireland, his dying wife standing hunched over beside him, "but I longed for all of you and for the wealth of my homeland." The patch of woods of no more than three acres did yield some soft, blue grass that no animal would touch and many trees that no one could identify. Just before Moses stepped into the woods, the rain began, and as he walked on the rain became heavier. Well into the forest the rain came in torrents through the trees and the mighty summer leaves and after a bit Moses stopped and held out his hands and collected water that he washed over his face. Then he undressed down to his nakedness and lay down. To keep the rain out of his nose, he rolled up his shirt and placed it under his head so that it tilted just enough for the rain to flow down about his face. When he was an old man and rheumatism chained up his body, he would look back and blame the chains on evenings such as these, and on nights when he lost himself completely and fell asleep and didn't come to until morning, covered with dew.

The ground was almost soaked. The leaves seemed to soften the hard rain as it fell and it hit his body and face with no more power than the gentle tapping of fingers. He opened his mouth; it was rare for him and the rain to meet up like this. His eyes had remained open, and after taking in all that he could without turning his head, he took up his thing and did it. When he was done, after a few strokes, he closed his eyes, turned on his side and dozed. After a half hour or so the rain stopped abruptly ...

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The foregoing is excerpted from The Known World by Edward P. Jones. All rights reserved. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

Questions from Publisher's Reading Guide:

1. Why is the character of Moses significant to the novel? How would you characterize his relationship with Henry and Caldonia Townsend? What about with his wife and child?


2. What is the significance of the title, The Known World? What "known world" is charted in John Skiffington's map in the jail? What world is charted in The Creation described by Calvin in his letter to his sister Caldonia? What role does the land and its borders play in this book?


3. Who is William Robbins and how does he impact the lives of blacks on neighboring plantations? Did you find his relationships with Henry, Augustus, and Mildred Townsend, and Philomena, Dora, and Louis compelling?


4. What is the significance of the Augustus Townsend character? In what ways is Augustus a victim of attitudes about slavery in the South? In what ways is he a victor? How did you respond to his captivity and its outcome?


5. How would you characterize Jebediah Dickinson? What explains his sudden appearance at the Elston farm? When Fern says of Jebediah: "With him there ... I feel as if I belong to him, that I am his property," what does she mean?


6. Were relationships between parents and children notably different during the era of slavery than in the present day? Consider Caldonia, Calvin, and Maude; William Robbins, Patience, and Dora; and Augustus, Mildred, and Henry in your evaluations.

Suggested by Members

I had read the book years ago when it was first published, so I knew I would have a hard time getting through it again because the situation is so hopeless for so many.
What I forced myself to do was to read very slowly looking for use of the word "world", mark its location & think about how it fit with the theme & title.
Other book club members laughed at me at first until I began to add depth to the discussion with those examples.
by sonyalmoore (see profile) 02/18/11

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by Margaret H. (see profile) 02/11/23

 
by Mitzi B. (see profile) 01/15/19

 
by Laurie S. (see profile) 12/15/18

 
by Nash N. (see profile) 12/10/18

 
  "The Known World"by Carole M. (see profile) 01/17/14

I enjoyed the book but thought there were too many people introduced through out!

 
  "The Known World"by Sonya M. (see profile) 02/18/11

Fascinating treatment of a little known condition in the South before the Civil War: free blacks who owned slaves. It was a difficult book to read, not just because of the brutality but also because I... (read more)

 
  "I could not finish"by Carla O. (see profile) 05/18/08

Our book club read this. I tried and tried to get through it, but it was the only book I could not finish. It was so dark and sad to me. A few other members gave up on this one as well, and those that... (read more)

 
  "Through flashbacks the reader learns about life as a slave on black owned plantation. Henry Townsend was bouth out of slavery and under the tutelage of William Robbins learned how run his plantation"by Carrie M. (see profile) 02/21/08

The reader learns so much about life on a Black owned plantation and about slavery in general. the vast set of characters were difficult to follow, which is the major drawback to stimilating read.

 
  "Fascinating view of humanity"by Carole S. (see profile) 12/26/07

I found the book fascinating. It takes a very thought provoking look at not only slavery but how some human beings change when circumstances allow even to the point of repeating the mistakes of their... (read more)

 
  "Not for the faint of heart, this book is a difficult read on more than one level."by Annie H. (see profile) 03/21/07

The author has written a fascinating story that rips your heart open time and again. This book is anything but fluff and is ripe with content for discussion. The style of writing is sometimes difficult... (read more)

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