The Known World by Edward P. Jones could be best summarized by the following passage.
Winifred had meant no bad thing by the words. With what little money she had, she hired a printer-an enlightened white immigrant from Savannah, Georgia,-to make up the posters and put them up all about Philadelphia, “where any eye could see,” she had instructed the printer. She had meant only love with the words, for she loved Minerva more than she loved any other human being in the world. But John Skiffington’s widow had been fifteen years in the South, in Manchester County, Virginia and people down there just talked that way. She and the printer from Savannah would have told anyone that they didnt mean any harm by it.
From Caldonia Townsend, the free colored woman who inherits a plantation when her husband dies in an untimely manner to John Skiffington, the sheriff who reads his bible, and yet never seems to honestly attempt to live the words he finds inside, most of the characters in power in the book appear to be as helpless as the slaves they own. They go through the course of the book doing horrible and ugly and immoral things, not meaning anything by them, but that’s just the way they do things down there. This book navigates the lives of the slaves on Henry Townsend’s plantation, the activities of the night patrol hired by John Skiffington to keep slaves from running amok and William Robbins, the most powerful man in the county. The story chronicles these journies from past to future.
The slave Celeste loses her baby at six months of pregnancy when she is sent to the fields by the overseer Moses after she has told him that she does not feel good and her husband has offered to do her work for her. Her husband, Elias, who has already had part of his ear taken off at the request of Moses and Henry Townsend (Caldonia’s late husband) pins a lock of the dead child’s hair to his shirt and plots in his heart the revenge against Moses. Caldonia and her mother have affairs with their slaves. The book is full of the kind of drama that happened during the antebellum period. However, after reading about what happens to Augustus, the master craftsman who had bought his, his wife and Henry’s freedom, I was truly speechless and breathless, and I’ve read slave narratives (including that of a black man who was born free and sold into slavery), lynching accounts, and other documents of the racial violence and injustice visited upon African Americans.
This book is amazing. I’m adding it to my permanent collection. My kids WILL read it when they are old enough.