Friday, August 11, 2006

The Known World- book review

Broussard: "I get you better map, and more map of today. Map of today, how the world out together today, not yesterday, not long ago."

Skiffington: "I'm happy with what I got."

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

A slave story told in an unflinchingly and uniquely honest way.

Attention is given to the fact that freed blacks became slaveowners. This reminds me of Jews who cooperated with the Nazis, and A Class Divided, the famous blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on discrimination done by Mrs. Elliot.

What does it take to make people act like they are so much better than others? Mere suggestion? Getting away with it?

Skiffington is the county sheriff in the book and one of his main responsibilities is keeping slaves from wandering off their plantations and running away. Henry Townsend is the son of a former slave who purchased the freedom of himself and his family. Henry buys his own farm and slaves. Although he intends to be fair in the beginning, his former owner, who he becomes friendly with, impresses upon him the need to show his slaves that he is better than them. When Henry dies, his widow Caldonia is unable to retain control & several slaves run away.

What perpetuates inequality? What was that mysterious factor that disappeared when the slaveowner died and allowed chaos to take hold?

My answer is fear. Fear of being caught and tortured or killed or maimed. Runaways were routinely hobbled by having the Achilles tendon cut or had an ear or part of an ear cut off. Why do women stay in abusive relationships? Why do people in general not stand up for themselves? What keeps some people from chasing their dreams?

Another interesting story involves a slave woman who gains a great deal of freedom and eventually runs away to freedom by acting like she is mentally handicapped. Everyone thinks she is harmless, but night after night she is scouting the roads and planning her trip to freedom. Is ignorance a protection? How many women act like the housewife that their husbands want, when a whole different intelligent woman is just beneath the surface?

"His (Skiffington's) only job was to pull it all back together again, make it whole and right the same way God had given it to him."

The lesson that I carry away from this book is more than intelligence and equality though. It is about not being satisfied with what you have and who you are; not settling for an outdated map of your world. It is about reaching for all that you dream of, things that can be within your reach. It is about not being happy with the way things have always been, but imagining a new world, where everyone is equal and no one is afraid to give their opinion.

An excellent first novel for Mr. Jones. I will be sure to look for more from him.

R. C.

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