Friday, April 20, 2012

Battle of the Prizes - American Version - The Known World

It took a while for this book to get ahold of me. I spent over a month reading it in short bursts, which is not my usual pattern. Normally once I fall into a story, I find all kinds of long and short sections of time to return to it. Once that momentum builds, I often finish a book in less than a week. This one, however, resisted me for quite a long time.

This is not to say it isn't an interesting story, filled with unique characters and a particularly singular perspective. It's the story of Henry Townsend, a former slave, who by luck, hard work and the friendship of a powerful white plantation owner, becomes a plantation owner and slave-holder himself. Through the events of Henry's life and death, we meet the other members of Henry's world: from the stereotypical characters we are all familiar with to educated, free blacks and unscrupulous lower class white "patrollers" charged with intimidating the slaves into staying in their cabins at night.

It is a vivid world drawn in large looping circles of narrative that often move from the present to the past to the future in one loosely organized paragraph. I had trouble following the narrative, and at first I didn't want to simultaneously know the character's past, present and future while a particular incident was being told.

But somewhere in the middle, the method clicked. I started to suspect that the novel was modeled on oral history, and some of the information could almost be read as asides or footnotes, as though the story was being told by an older relative who wanted to tell the story and also explain the important insight it contained. Haven't you ever been told a story, where the teller feels compelled to point out, "Now, that was back before the war" or "Of course, she wasn't your mama yet"? That seems to be what's going on here.

Of course, the author is playing with the idea of "knowing" and how the "known world" shifts with time, events, and personalities. Henry's death is one such shift, and the "known world" of the black owned plantation changes when his presence of mind and strength of spirit are no longer present to hold it together. Slaves escape the "known world" of the plantation for the unknown world of freedom in the north, or for the bewilderment of being lost in the equally unknown world just beyond the plantation boundary they have never before crossed. Whites, too, leave their "known worlds" in various ways, abandoning social convention, economic prosperity, and an honest living for equally foreign territory.

This novel also contains just enough magical realism to keep it interesting and deliver a slightly shimmering supernatural viewpoint. The backloops and forward casts of time and information work nicely with the idea that things may not always be as they seem, or what they are expected to be. I enjoyed that part immensely, and it seemed to mesh with the slightly unconventional organization of the story itself. Relaxing into the narrative as an oral history tale made for an enjoyable, eventually captivating experience. When I stopped fighting it, I started liking it.


He left, him and the wagon and the horse with all its years behind it. He met a lot of kindness on his way north because he had only that one foot, but no matter how many warm beds and full plates black and white people gave him and no matter how well they treated his horse, he never stopped thinking that he was moving through a demon state. He came to Washington, D.C., and settled for it, though it was Baltimore that he had had his heart set on. Fern's horse died six months after Jebediah hit Washington. He never bothered to go the forty miles to Baltimore to see if it was all he had dreamed. He named his first child, his only daughter, Maribelle, the name of the horse he had to shoot outside of Fern's place with Fern's rifle. He named his second child Jim, after the horse that had brought him to Washington. He caught his son one day writing "James" on his lessons and he told the boy without raising his voice that if he had wanted to name him James, that was what he would have done.


  1. You had me with this until you mentioned magical realism. Now I'm not too sure. Sometimes that works for me, but usually it doesn't.

    I'm doing this challenge too but The Known World isn't on my reading list this year.

  2. I enjoyed The Known World. I only read it because it was a Pulitzer, but I was glad I did.


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