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The Known World is an extraordinary novel in which local author Edward P. Jones more than fulfills the substantial promise he showed in Lost in the City, his 1992 short story collection set in contemporary Washington, D.C. Just as Lost in the City introduced readers to overlooked District neighborhoods, The Known World explores another slice of unfamiliar territory: the world made by free African-Americans in the South before the Civil War. The world created by Jones is entirely fictional, but nevertheless completely credible in depicting the contradictions inherent in a society in which the law assigned status based upon race. The novel explores the disorder that ensues on a Virginia farm after the death of its owner, Henry Townsend, a slave-holding African-American. As the story shifts backward and forward in time, it conveys the intimacy of rural life that coexisted with the divisions caused by the peculiar institution of slavery. Robert Cover’s Justice Accused highlighted the conflict between morality and positive law in the decisions made by Northern judges who did not believe in slavery yet nevertheless enforced fugitive slave laws. A similar conflict exists in the choices available to Henry once he is a free man. Here is how Jones describes the arc of Henry’s life: “When Henry went into freedom, Robbins had the boy come again and again to make boots and shoes for him and his male guests. Henry was, to be sure, not allowed to touch a white woman, but by using one of Robbins’ female house slaves to measure their feet, he made the same for . . . women guests at the plantation. . . . Henry began to accumulate money, which along with some real estate he would eventually get from Robbins, would be the foundation of what he was and what he had the evening he died.” With the right to control his own labor and to acquire property, Henry enjoys the same economic rights as the white men in the county. Has Henry’s experience as a slave instilled in him the same disgust for slavery felt by his parents? Apparently not, since he decides to live according to the code of conduct exemplified by his former master, William Robbins. To his parents’ chagrin, Henry is the proud owner of land and slaves. The Known World has been nominated for the National Book Award, and deservedly so. In a brief review, it is difficult if not impossible to suggest the richness of the intricate world Jones has created, or to indicate the deceptive ease with which he has done so. Let me note briefly the novel’s most compelling qualities. First, although The Known World provides an extensive critique of the legal system that allowed some people to be no more than the property of another person, it is never didactic. By accepting completely the notion that private property is the organizing principle of the novel’s world, Jones describes in what often seems to be a completely credulous voice the transactions in which human beings are bought and sold. After describing the purchase of Henry Townsend’s first slave, Moses, Jones writes: “It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made.” Jones never betrays the sincerity of this voice, and it is this unquestioning acceptance of ownership of human beings that, cumulatively, condemns the entire enterprise. Second, Jones is a patient writer. In the first third of the novel, Jones introduces all of the inhabitants of The Known World. It is a sprawling, interconnected world, and Jones takes his time showing it to the reader. In setting the stage, Jones may present the life history of a minor character as an aside in less than a paragraph, but other incidents � such as the wedding present of a girl slave given to Deputy Sheriff John Skiffington and his wife, Winifred Patterson � are described in detail and resonate through the entire novel. Educated at the “Philadelphia School for Girls,” an institution with “one foot in Quakerism,” Winifred does not want the slave, and neither does her husband. It would, however, be poor form to refuse such a generous gift. As the novel unfolds, the gift to Sheriff Skiffington from his cousin Counsel informs all of their subsequent interactions. Finally, The Known World is a remarkable confluence of literary styles and influences. A scene in which an evil patroller literally eats the free papers of a former slave then sells him to a white man traveling through Virginia is no less chilling than any beating administered by Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In depicting an elderly slave’s bumbling efforts to court younger women, Jones resorts to a familiar slapstick routine. (Even after Stamford is punched in the face by the object of his affection, he returns with flowers stolen from a garden to woo his “sugar.”) And, as Jonathan Yardley observed in The Washington Post, The Known World has the feel of a Victorian novel, an impression reinforced by the brief summaries in italics at the start of each chapter. Jones is a D.C. native, and his experience in and knowledge of the District was evident in the short stories of Lost in the City, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The Known World is an even more dazzling accomplishment because of the accumulated weight of the different interrelated stories as they come together in the novel, and because of his penetrating account of the institution of slavery. It should come as no surprise, and certainly would be a fair result, if Jones receives the National Book Award for introducing us to The Known World. Rodger D. Citron is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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