Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Edward P. Jones' THE KNOWN WORLD

By Dennis D. McDonald

This was the only book I had with me on vacation so I kept with it even though it took me 100 pages to become engaged. The last 100 pages I rushed through I was so eager to finish. I did finish it. I’m glad I read it. But I have very mixed feelings about the experience.

If you read other reviews and the blurbs published with the book you must expect something truly exceptional. Is it?

I don’t know enough about literature to answer that question. All I can do is recount my own, probably uninformed, reaction.

The story follows a group of slaves and slave owners in fictional Manchester County Virginia some years before the Civil War. The main family’s distinction is that they are former slaves now free, they run a farm of their own, and they own their own slaves.

The young master dies early in the story. The unraveling of life as they know it occupies the rest of the book.

The book is chock full of historical detail, some real, some made up. You can’t always tell which is which. Details are piled upon details of what life must have been like for slaves back then. Sometimes these details are truly horrific and difficult to digest.

The made-up parts of the story don’t bother me. I still have the ability to suspend belief and tolerate ambiguity. I like the interweaving of real sounding history and geographic detail. I’ve lived in Virginia nearly half my life and really enjoy this part of the country.

My basic problem with the book, though, is personal. I just don’t like the author’s writing style, and it was the style that had me gritting my teeth at times, not the story.

What I didn’t like:

  • Failure to flesh out characters . There are many many characters, enough to justify a list as an appendix in the book. I still found it hard to keep track of everyone, primarily, I think, because the author does not really tell us many details about the individuals. Characters seem to be created and moved around like chess pieces. Perhaps that is intentional and related to the overall slavery theme, but I guess I just hate having a hard time visualizing characters when there are so many and they are referred to mainly on a first name basis.
  • Droning tone . Especially in the first half of the novel I felt that run on sentences and a lack of color and description were creating a dreary, droning environment, almost as if I were reading a poorly translate foreign novel or a very very old text. Granted the author has powerful creative skills; crisp and colorful writing are not part of his bag of tricks. There is just too much monotony here.
  • Confusing time shifting . This drove me up a wall. I suppose this is a sophisticated literary method. I just found it plain annoying. You’d be reading about a character or situation. Then — without any transition — you’d be reading about events ten or twenty years later. Then you’d be back to the original time, but you can’t tell whether the pronoun “he” or “she” in the next sentence refers to current or displaced time. Is it the author’s intention to create an ambiguity? Or is the author just using literary tricks without taking into account the needs of the reader?

I balance these complaints with the fact that the author is creating another time and another place and is telling us things about a shameful period in our national history we must never forget. He succeeds admirably — you can almost smell the slower passage of time. And occasionally the author creates jewels of simple human relationships that cause the reader to stop and savor examples of how basic human relationships, and love, can overcome even the most evil and bestial of human tendencies.

But this book is NOT easy going. Do not expect a picnic or a walk in the park. Expect to work at reading it.