Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Known World

The Known World - Edward P. Jones

Time to return to book reviewing here at Vapour Trails after a hiatus caused by my focus on my Top 102 Albums⁺. Although I intend to continue blogging on my favourite albums I will not be doing so quite as regularly and hope to achieve a mix of book and music posts. I also hope to write on film a bit more, although I do often find that by the time I can settle down to watch a film I am too tired to do so.

I knew nothing about this book when I started reading and was therefore surprised when one of the central conceits was revealed after a few pages, in this description of the slave Moses and his master, Henry Townsend.  "He was thirty-five years old and for every moment of those years he had been someone's slave, a white man's slave and then another white man's slave and now, for nearly ten years, the overseer slave for a black master." In fact  I was a little afraid that the 'black master' might be a 'gimmick' that was the reason for the book's popularity but as I read on this fear proved unfounded.

The book pushes you to try to understand what it was to only have value as livestock and to be bought and sold at a whim, moved away from friends and family as a child or an adult, even put down if you were too troublesome. Even free blacks were required to carry their papers with them at all times and were repeatedly forced to show them by the law, which mainly existed to ensure that no slaves escaped.

It paints a picture of how society can grow like a creeper up the most twisted bough, with some, even those who have most reason to, unable to see how corrupt the basis of their society is. Undoubtedly, in the future people will look back at us and ask the same question. How was it that people carried on as if  everything was fine? Sometimes being a little better isn't good enough. "Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known. He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master."

Moses was Henry's first slave, but Henry wasn't his first master. He had accepted at some level the 'logic' of slavery but a black master was not part of that 'logic'. "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 that he made." Others, however, never believed that there was any logic in the system and so were less surprised. "Elias had never believed in a sane God and so had never questioned a world where colored people could be the owners of slaves, and if at that moment, in the near dark, he had sprouted wings, he would not have questioned that either."

Living in an insane world has turned many minds and it takes great endurance to survive intact. It is almost necessary to embrace the hopelessness of their world and carry on with hope anyway:  "there was a creek that had never seen a fish, but slaves fished in it nevertheless, practicing for the day when there would be better water." What makes the book endurable as a reader is, in part the constant awareness that the world depicted was on its last legs and the book inhabits many time frames, including times long after slavery ceased to exist. This allows us to see how freedom released the potential of some.

As well as the horror of slavery we also become aware of the fear which gnaws at many slaveowners. They live lives surrounded by and dependent on their slaves, who outnumber them. As is often the case, fear drives brutality.  "It had frightened the white woman, seeing the incongruity of a nigger with a book, she told Maude after the slave, Victoria, had been whipped and told to forget what she knew. It frightened her more than walking into the barn and seeing a mule singing hymns or speaking the Lord's words.."

The relationship between the sexes is also covered from many angles. One of the key characters, William Robbins has two families, one with his white wife and one with one of his slaves. The right of white men to use slaves for their own pleasure is accepted and even runs to men who do not own the slave in question. "Patrollers may have taken advantage of the women and killed them all to cover the crime. But why kill them if the crime was only rape? Raping a slave would not bring the law down on them. In many minds, raping a slave was not even a crime."

This book is a powerful indictment of man's inhumanity to man and even though it is set in the past it is not hard to see how this vision can be applied to our world today. It is a powerful and vivid book combining strong storytelling with a sophisticated structural sense and a surprising take on one of the most powerfully affecting periods of US history.

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