PPRL: The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (winner, 2004)

Well, what started out as an accidental journey through all of the Civil War-era themed Pulitzer Prize-winning novels is officially no longer accidental. Cool way to move through the list, and now I've got a much better understanding of antebellum plantation life (for better or for worse). Terence even promised he'd take me to the Civil War exhibition at The Autry Museum, and the fact that I'm excited about that is quite a compliment to these writers. History and I have not, historically speaking, been fast friends.

So, more slavery. But this time - black slave masters. Racism, violence, heartbreak, all the horrors of trafficking in human beings - but some breathtakingly beautiful scenes, as well. One of my favorites takes place between Celeste and Elias, two slaves belonging to Henry Townsend of Manchester, Virginia (himself a freed former slave). Celeste has a bad leg and suffers from a limp; she's self-conscious and defensive about her affliction. Elias has recently had part of his ear cut off for attempting to run away. Though at first the two didn't like one another, they've come together to care for Luke, an orphaned slave child.

A week later he was at her door again and she was in the doorway and he opened a little piece of a rag and presented a comb he had carved out of a piece of wood. The comb was rough, certainly one of the crudest and ugliest instruments in the history of the world. Not one tooth looked like another; some of the teeth were far too thick, but most of them were very thin, the result of his whittling away with the hope that he was approaching some kind of perfection. “Oh,” Celeste said. “Oh, my.” She took it and smiled. “My goodness gracious.”
     ”It ain’t much.”
     “It be the whole world. You givin it to me?”
     “I am.”
     “Well, my goodness gracious.” She tried to run the comb through her hair but the comb failed in its duty. “Oh, my,” Celeste said as she struggled with it. Several teeth broke off. “Oh, my.”
     He reached up and taking her hand with the comb, they extricated it from her hair. “I done broke it,” she said when they had pulled it away. “Dear Lord, I done broke it.”
     “Pay it no mind,” Elias said.
     “But you gave it to me, Elias." Aside from the food in her stomach and the clothes on her back and a little of nothing in a corner of her cabin, the comb was all she had. A child of three could have toted around all she owned all day long and not gotten tired.
     “We can do another one.” He reached up and picked out the comb’s teeth that had broken off in her hair.
     “But . . .”
     “I’ll make you a comb for every hair on your head.”
     She began to cry. “Thas easy to say today cause the sun be shinin. Tomorrow, maybe next week, there won’t be no sun, and you won’t be studyin no comb.”
     He said again, “I’ll make you a comb for every hair on your head.” He dropped the broken teeth onto the ground and she closed her hand tight over what was left of the comb.
     She put her face into her other hand and cried. There had been a slave on the plantation she had come from who had come upon her in a field of corn and told her that a woman like her should be shot, like a horse with a broken leg. And she had cried then as well.
     Elias put his arms around her, tentative, for this was the first time. He trembled and the trembling increased the closer she got to his body. He kissed the side of her head, near the hairline, and his legs met not only her skin and hair but a tooth from the comb that he had somehow missed. 

Something else, right?

At times The Known World can be feel a little meandering, but that's only because it's so ambitious, encompassing the intertwined lives of several generations of blacks and whites connected through experience, blood, money. But there are plenty of passages like the above to keep you turning pages, no worries there.

Things to think about:

  • unrequited love; satisfactions denied (Robbin's wife being passed over for a lover, Henry rejecting his parents in favor of Robbins, Fern Elston pointlessly being a "dutiful wife"...)
  • human beings as commodities, as disposable chattel and marks in a tally book, reduced to their utilitarian value
  • complicated relationships and how the ties that bind aren't always made of blood
  • the significance of dreams, superstition, and spells (Robbins' "storms", root work, Alice...)
  • the idea of duty; what does dutifulness require? what are its boundaries and exceptions?
  • the whims and capriciousness of fate; how everything can change in an instant since the slaves have no control over their lives
  • the ways in which a sort of roundabout justice is served to various characters throughout the novel; karma and come-uppance (Broussard losing his wife, Robbins' suffering of headaches, etc)
  • the role of longing, of imagined paradises (Richmond for Philomene, Philadelphia for Gwendolyn, NY for Calvin, etc)
  • the role of hospitality; the significance of host vs. master (invited, free guests vs. those in chains) - what are the responsibilities and consider the dark ironies behind them?