The Known World by Edward P. Jones

August 26, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): The Known World tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can’t uphold the estate’s order, and chaos ensues. Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all its moral complexities.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • Though there wasn’t a single main protagonist in this work, most of the characters in the ensemble cast were memorable and worth reading about. I was interested in their lives and became invested in what happened to them.
  • Jones’ writing style was engaging for the most part. I didn’t have a problem (as others apparently did/do) with his grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc. Obviously he made those choices for a reason, and I respect his right as an author to do those things.
  • Fern was the most fascinating character, IMO. It seemed like she was outside the action, not really a part of what was going on at Henry’s place, but for some reason, I loved reading about her and perked up whenever she was front and center.


  • I am not a fan of non-linear storytelling, and this book didn’t change my mind. I realize it’s as much of a stylistic choice as grammar and spelling, but I just don’t see the point of it.
  • It took a while for the action to get off the ground. I almost gave up on this early on, but pressed forward because of the prizes and positive reviews.
  • Even though I’ve heard about some of the atrocities committed against slaves, it was still very hard to read about them in graphic detail. A few images from this book will stick with me for a long time.


Although I liked the characters well enough, the non-traditional elements in The Known World prevented me from falling in love with the book as so many others have apparently done. I think the good points and bad balance each other out, which is why I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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