Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2006 | Reviews

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

By Joe Parsons

As acquiring editor for the University of Iowa Press, Joe Parsons spends his days immersed in books of all kinds. His current, personal choice of reading matter is The Known World by Edward P. Jones (Amistad), which won a Pulitzer Prize and was a National Book Award finalist.

Why did you choose this book?

When it was published, The Known World received outstanding reviews comparing it to Toni Morrison's Beloved. That's a pretty strong statement, so I was eager to see for myself. I have to say that this book lived up to the hype.

What's it about?

In a nutshell, it's a story of slavery in the antebellum South, but it covers something I knew very little about before reading it. Like other Americans, I learned in high school that it was possible for slaves to purchase their freedom. What I didn't know was that, in some cases, freed slaves would then buy slaves of their own—a perverse notion if there ever was one. This book is about life in and around the Townsend Plantation, in Manchester County, Virginia. The plantation is owned by Henry Townsend, a former slave whose purchase of 31 slaves sets off a chain reaction of explosive events and emotions for his family and friends. The Known World explores the complications that arise—for people of all races—when humans are reduced to pieces of property.

What do you like most about it?

Aside from learning about something new, I enjoyed Jones's weaving together of the storylines of the many characters across time and place. Because Jones doesn't tell the story in a linear fashion, the reader has to pay close attention, but the book is so beautifully written and the characters so finely drawn that it's worth the effort. There's the old joke about reading those sprawling 19th-century Russian novels: "You don't know vich Vich is vich." Jones includes a lineup of the characters—a dramatis personae—at the end of the book that is helpful, but ultimately you come to know these strong characters and care about them as people.

What would you say to recommend it to others?

The book takes an unsparing look at a shameful period of American history, and for that reason alone it should be read. Beyond that, though, it's a beautiful literary work.