It is one thing to learn dry accounts of slavery in America in history class (accounts which often seem to say that Lincoln Freed The Slaves And Then Everyone Was Cool and Hey A Party, but I digress), but it is difficult sometimes for the modern mind (especially the privileged one) to truly understand how monstrous the entire institution really was. These books about slavery and the human condition have changed more lives than just mine, I know, and I think they should be on every bookshelf:
Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Family, J. California Cooper
Kindred, Octavia Butler
and now I'd add The Known World, by Edward P. Jones.
While readable and engrossing, this is at times a very difficult read simply because Jones has the ability to make you care deeply about his characters. With the first chapter, in which he creates in loving detail the county of Manchester, VA down to fake census records and town gossip, you are helpless to do much else until you finish this book. I took it with me on a walk around Lake Merritt yesterday, and stopped no more than four times to read a chapter here, a chapter there, because it was so hard to put down.
One of the things about this book that will break your heart and make you angry as you read it is that Jones refuses to make "good guys" and "bad guys". Bravely, Jones tackles the controversial and highly difficult topic of black people who owned slaves, and he does not spare us the readers by making these slave masters of color kind and egalitarian. They are slave masters just like any other. He also grimly shows just how fragile supposed "free papers" could truly be. No more on that, though, as I don't want to spoil it!
This book made me cry and nearly made me throw it. When it was over, there was a lump in my throat that refused to dissolve.
It won a Pulizer, and I can understand why.
Read this book. You won't be sorry.