what i'm reading: the known world by edward p. jones

I just finished reading The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (among other awards), this is an unusual and extraordinary novel. It's about slavery in the American South, but with a twist: some of the slave owners are black.

I never knew there were black slave owners. They were African-Americans who were able to secure their own freedom, and then bought slaves. Think about it.

Although I had never realized it, I was accustomed to thinking of slavery in simplistic terms of racism. The white slave owners were oppressors, the slaves were victims, and they wanted to be free. Here, good and evil line up neatly with race.

But is life ever so simple?

By exploring slavery across and within colour lines, Jones lets us think about it in terms other than racism: he brings us the power dynamic behind the arrangement. And as I thought about it, it made all the sense in the world. Of course there were free blacks who risked their lives to help others reach freedom. And of course there were slaves who got more for themselves at the expense of others. Isn't that how life is? Weren't the enslaved African-Americans people, with all the good and bad and complexity that that implies?

By way of analogy, I can't stand the reverse sexism that labels everything good in the world as feminine and everything bad, masculine. You know, the "if women ran the world, it would be a better place" way of thinking? Sure, as long as the woman wasn't Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton or Ann Coulter. Women are people, and that means we are as capable of evil as men. And men are as capable of compassion as women.

Reading The Known World, I also realized that black overseers, and even black slave owners, were logical cogs in the slavery machinery. Don't many abused people turn around and become abusers themselves?

One central character in The Known World, having obtained his freedom, sees very clearly that it's better to be a master than a slave. So why not become a master himself? His father-figure and mentor becomes the plantation owner from whom his parents won their freedom, whom he seeks to emulate more than his own parents.

The plantation owner, as was common, has white children from his wife, and black children from his mistress. He loves his black children and their mother very deeply. He provides for and protects these black people, while he has these other black people enslaved and tortured. How does he live with that cognitive dissonance?

In The Known World, Jones explores the complex power and race dynamics that kept the whole system going, and the rationalizations and self-deceptions people might use to live in such a world.

It's not the easiest book to get into - a large number of characters from different time periods are introduced all at once, and I found it a little difficult to keep track of them at first. But I gave it a chance, and was soon mesmerized.

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I recently tried to read several novels, all highly recommended by good readers - and I didn't really like any of them. Each was all right, way better than I could write, but not compelling enough for me to spend time with. I was starting to wonder if I still liked novels, which would really be something for this former English major. I think the last novel I greatly enjoyed was Zadie Smith's On Beauty. The Known World reminds me that I've gotten increasingly discriminating, but I still love the form.

Now it's back to history, specifically my ongoing exploration of Canadian history. Part of my birthday present (back in June) from Allan was Pierre Berton's Klondike. Last fall I read both Berton's books about the building of the Canadian railroad: The National Dream and The Last Spike. The next books, chronologically, are the two about the gold rush: Klondike and The Promised Land. I'm going to read them both. Eventually, I'm going to read all three of his books that cover 1812-1815. There's nothing I love reading more than well-written history, and Berton is among the best there is.

And yes, I've seen Pierre Berton rolling a joint with Rick Mercer! At least a dozen people have left mentioned that in comments at various times.

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Note for new readers: all book-related posts on wmtc are titled "what i'm reading", in case you want to search for anything. After the re-design, I hope to have posts sortable by categories, and that will be one of them.

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