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Book 26: The Known World - Edward P. Jones

The Known World, Edward P. Jones Pulitzer Prize winning novel from 2003 is a tapestry of observation. There is no main character and it I only in the final third where a story emerges. The novel simultaneously becomes very intimate but in a very distant way, never letting us truly get inside the minds of the characters but having us trust the omniscient narrator to be telling us the truth; his accuracy is never doubted. Jones is very much about describing a moment in a way that makes it come alive. This leads to many passages that I can still remember very well; his style has stuck with me. The synopsis given on the inside of the book is not representative of the book at all; I don’t blame them because it is impossible to give a sense of what reading it is like on the inside flap. Henry Townsend is not the main character but is at the center of everything. His death is used as a center point to launch us into the past, giving us a sense of the dozens of characters who populate the book intermittently. Once that is done, we go back to the days following Henry’s death and the disintegration that ensues there. Jones also takes the time to give us a look into what the lives of our characters will become; sometimes in one sentence teases and other times in several paragraphs. By the end everything takes quite very tragic turns but the last several pages are absolutely beautiful. Overall, this was incredible.

Favorite Characters: Augustus, Mildred, Fern, Celeste, Stamford, Elias, Calvin, Alice
Least Favorite: Where do I even begin? Travis, Oden, Caldonia, Counsel, Moses and many more

Selected Passages:

- “No,” Anderson said. “No, it is not as life-threatening. Indeed it can be quite pleasant.” He looked out at the ground before them, the grass, the trees on either side of the winding path that led up to the porch, the sunlight blanketing everything, and then he saw his brothers and sisters standing side by side. He had heard three months before his visit to Canada that one of his sisters, Sheila, second from the left there in Fern’s yard, had died. All his siblings now stood in Fern’s summer yard in the heaviest of winter clothes, boots, coats, fur hats. It was snowing. His brothers and sisters were waving at him, one hand from each of them, and aside from the waving, they were very still, the way they would have been had they been posing for a photograph. “Yes, quite pleasant”.

 - He might have come back again the next night but he had awakened the night he stole the flowers from a dream he could not remember. The dream went to pieces as soon as he sat up on his pallet, but what came into his head was the thought of his mother and father. He had not seen them in more than thirty-five years. He called out to them there in the dark and received no answer. He was forty years old. He sat on his pallet and began to think that he would never again have young stuff, that he would shrivel up and die alone in slavery. There in the dark he realized that he did not even remember his parents’ names. Did they have names? He asked himself as the cabin rose and fell with the snoring of the two other men. Did they have names? They must have, he told himself.”

- He stood there for a very long time, and the longer he stood, the more he sank. All the heart he had for living in the world began to leave him. He could feel the life running down his chest, his arms and legs, doing something for the ground that it had never been able to do for him. If God had asked him if he was ready right then, there would have been only one answer. “Just take me on home. Or spit me down to hell, I don’t care anymore. Just take me away from this.

- He talked to each bird separately, as if the history he had with one was distinct and different from the one he had with the other. To speak to them as a couple, as one unit, would be disrespectful to the history he shared with either. He continued licking his fingers and touching the birds, but neither bird seemed interested in sharing its little piece of death.