The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 2004, set in the years prior to the Civil War in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, describes the rich tapestry of characters and events that take place after the death of black slave owner, Henry Townsend. Purchased out of slavery during his youth by his parents, Townsend goes on to later purchase land near his former master, with whom he retains ties of esteem throughout his entire brief life. Educated by a local freed-woman teacher so light-skinned she could go north to “pass,” Townsend does not follow the path of his free father, but rather purchases slaves to become a master himself.
Throughout the novel, Jones unflinchingly reveals the little known history of black on black slave ownership, as well as the subtle racism of lighter skinned versus darker skinned blacks. Townsend’s widow, Caldonia, is beset by the pressures of running a plantation in the antebellum south, without the full backing of the law, which only supports freed blacks when it is convenient to do so. Jones’ depiction of the lives of the Townsend slaves, as well as those of the local sheriff and slave catchers, creates a compelling tale that masterfully weaves in and out of time and place with touches of the surreal. Things do not always develop as one might expect in Manchester County, some people are better than you would think, and others behave very badly indeed, and sometimes the crazy are proved to understand it best of all.