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Counsel is the North Carolina-based cousin to John Skiffington. He attends John's wedding to Winifred and presents them Minerva as a wedding gift. Counsel later loses his family, all his slaves, and much of his property after a smallpox epidemic sweeps through his plantation. He burns it to the ground and leaves for a trip across the country, which takes him through Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

Though believed dead, Counsel later turns up in Manchester County, where John takes him on as his deputy sheriff. John believes that Counsel is lazy in his duties. Counsel kills John with Mildred's rifle and covers up his crime. John Skiffington works first as the deputy sheriff and later as the sheriff of Manchester County. He tries to be as fair as possible to both whites and free blacks, but he often finds his position challenging and sometimes reads the Bible in times of stress.

Dealing with his patrollers causes him many problems. Skiffington marries Winifred, the niece of the sheriff for whom he was a deputy, and, like his Philadelphia-born wife, is troubled by his cousin Counsel's gift of a slave girl, Minerva, as a wedding present. Skiffington does not want to own slaves. When Counsel returns from his long journey, Skiffington hires his cousin as his deputy.

Counsel eventually kills Skiffington when the pair go to Mildred's house looking for Moses. Sophie is a slave on Robert Colfax's plantation. Sophie's tales of Richmond and its greatness compel Philomena to run away there several times. After Robbins gives Philomena her freedom and buys her a home, Philomena insists that Robbins purchase Sophie Colfax for her.

Stamford is a slave on the Townsend plantation who is forty years old at the time of Henry's death. He is always chasing young women. He was involved with Gloria and gets into a physical altercation with Clement over her. Stamford also tries to gain the affections of Cassandra, to no avail. Going out into a storm to get blueberries for Delores and Patrick changes Stamford, who eventually marries Delphie. Toby was a slave owned by William Robbins. He worked as Robbins's groom before Henry did.

Robbins sells Toby and his sister Mindy to a man who assists him when he is not feeling well, whom Robbins incorrectly comes to believe is an abolitionist. He tries to sell Caldonia insurance on her slaves several times. Augustus was once a slave on William Robbins's plantation, but he worked to buy his freedom as well as that of his wife Mildred and son Henry.

Augustus is a talented woodworker who can carve walking sticks, cabinets, bed frames, and other items. Robbins had allowed Augustus to hire himself out to make such objects and keep part of the profit to buy his freedom, which he succeeded in doing when was about twenty-two years old. After he is freed, Augustus first rents, then buys, land and builds a house for himself and his family on the far end of Manchester County.

Though Augustus loves his son, he is troubled by Henry's continuing connection to Robbins after Henry became free. Augustus beats Henry after learning Henry is to become a slave owner. Augustus only visits his son when he is ill in the last few years of his life and would only stay in the slave quarters. Soon after his son's death, Augustus is kidnapped and sold back into slavery by two patrollers.

He ends up in Georgia, where he is shot by his new owners soon after they buy him. Caldonia is a black woman who was born free and received her education from Fern. She is the daughter of Maude and the sister of Calvin. Caldonia was married to Henry Townsend until his death, which came only a few years after their wedding. They had no children. After Henry's death, Caldonia decides to keep the plantation running under her supervision. Missing Henry, Caldonia begins a physical relationship with Moses, who tells her stories about Henry's past. She chooses not to free Moses. Caldonia cares about her slaves and tries to ensure she has control over them, but she becomes concerned when six leave soon after Henry's death.

Caldonia eventually marries Louis Cartwright. Henry was born in slavery to Augustus and Mildred Townsend. William Robbins owned them until Augustus bought first himself, then his wife, and finally his son out of slavery. Henry is an intelligent boy who works as Robbins's groom and learns how to make shoes and boots. Robbins feels affection toward him, even after his parents buy his freedom when he is a young man.

Henry remains close to Robbins and spends much time at the Robbins's plantation after he is freed. Robbins gives him financial advice and helps set up Henry as a land owner and slave owner.


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After building up his property, Henry marries Caldonia. The couple have a happy marriage until Henry dies after a short illness at the age of thirty-one. Mildred was born into slavery and worked on William Robbins's plantation. She is married to Augustus and is the mother of Henry. Her husband buys her freedom from Robbins when she is twenty-six years old. Mildred is troubled by the conflicts between her husband and son, but she shares many of Augustus's concerns about Henry's relationship with Robbins. Though Augustus's work takes him away from their home for long periods of time, Mildred reports him missing to Counsel when Augustus does not return soon after Henry's death.

She does not know that slave traders have bought him until Barnum informs Sheriff Skiffington of Augustus's situation. Mildred does not learn of her husband's death, but while he is gone, she hides runaway Moses in her home. Skiffington looks for the missing Moses there and kills Mildred when his rifle accidentally goes off. Harvey is a poor white farmer who works as a patroller in Manchester County. He is married to a full-blooded Cherokee woman, the sister of Oden, with whom he has several children.

Harvey is often cruel to those he encounters while on patrol. For example, he eats Augustus's free papers and sells him to Darcy, a slave speculator. Clarence is poor white farmer who also works as a patroller. He is married to Beth Ann. He comes in conflict with Harvey over a cow that Harvey sold to Clarence.

Zeddie is a slave who works as a cook on the Townsend plantation. She is the second slave purchased by Henry. Zeus is a slave owned by Fern and Ramsey. He acts as a servant to Fern, who trusts him more than any of her other slaves. It is an accepted norm in the book, rarely challenged. The book is set in a fictional but realistic Virginia county in the antebellum South, where both whites and free blacks own slaves. However, white slave owners generally wield more power than their free black counterparts.

William Robbins and Robert Colfax are the two richest, most prominent white slave owners.

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Robbins, especially, is seen as a community leader who, for example, controls who is sheriff—he forces out Gilly Patterson in favor of John Skiffington—and can ensure patrollers will not bother certain free blacks—one complaint to Robbins about the patrollers' behavior ensures Fern is never bothered by them again. Some poor whites also own at least one slave. What makes The Known World's exploration of slavery unusual is its focus on free blacks who own slaves. Before his unexpected death at the age of thirty-one, Henry Townsend had a number of slaves and an expanding plantation.

Henry had been born a slave but his father, Augustus, worked to buy his freedom as he had purchased his own as well as his wife's. After Henry's death, his free black widow , Caldonia, continues to run the plantation and keep the family's slaves. Other free blacks in the novel also own slaves, including Caldonia's mother, Maude, who secretly poisoned her husband rather than allow him to free their slaves, and Caldonia's teacher and friend, Fern.

While Moses finds being owned by a fellow black man unusual at first, few free blacks question this situation. Only Henry's parents raise a significant objection. Augustus beats his son when Henry tells him that he bought Moses, and he refuses to stay in his son's house or allow his wife to do so the few times Augustus and his wife visit Henry's plantation. Though the institution of slavery is generally accepted in Manchester County, there are significant racial tensions between whites and blacks as well as between certain blacks.

For example, though Sheriff John Skiffington tries to enforce the law fairly for both blacks and whites, many of the men who work for him do not share this approach. Patrollers like Harvey Travis resent all blacks, especially free ones, and unfairly harass them. Harvey eats the papers that state Augustus is free and then sells the free black man back into slavery.

Harvey has the help of Oden Peoples, though Barnum Kinsey is uncomfortable with the action. Even the sheriff's cousin, deputy sheriff Counsel, does not care when Mildred reports that her husband is missing. John only learns of the situation with Augustus when Barnum's conscience bothers him enough, though he tells the sheriff, "don't put me on the nigger side. There is also tension between free blacks and enslaved blacks.

Moses finds it simply odd to be owned by another black man at first, but the situation grows more tense when Henry changes his attitude toward him after William Robbins finds them wrestling in Henry's partially completed house. Robbins tells Henry how he should treat someone he owns if he wants to be in control, and Henry changes his behavior accordingly.

While Calvin tries to treat his sister's slaves with care and dignity, his mother looks at them as her daughter's "legacy. Moses believes that Caldonia will free him and perhaps marry him, putting him in charge of the plantation. These hopes are dashed by Caldonia, who wonders about the legality of their relationship at one point. Moses responds to the rejection by running away, creating havoc for Caldonia, the plantation, and the community. Underscoring much of the plot in The Known World is an emphasis on the importance of familial and interpersonal relationships, sometimes across racial lines.

Though Caldonia is sometimes in conflict with her difficult mother, Maude and Caldonia's twin brother are supportive after Caldonia is widowed. They stay with her for a long time, though Calvin remains longer than their mother. As close as Caldonia is to her family, her bond with Fern, her friend and former teacher, goes even further.

Fern is in the room with Caldonia when Henry dies and stays with Caldonia longer than Maude and Calvin. Fern does all she can to support Caldonia. Even though Augustus and Mildred take issue with Henry's decision to become a slave owner, they also come to the plantation every time he is sick.

They love their son. Augustus worked tirelessly to buy himself, his wife, and his son out of slavery from William Robbins.


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  4. Augustus even smuggled Rita, Henry's caretaker on Robbins's plantation after his parents were free, out of slavery for Henry's sake, though Augustus did not want to take the risk. Many of the slaves on the Townsend plantation watch out for one another, even when in conflict with each other. Though Celeste has reason to hate Moses—he forced her to work when she was ill and six months pregnant, resulting in the loss of the child—she tries to give him food when he locks himself in his cabin after Caldonia's rejection before he runs away.

    One of the more unusual interpersonal relationships in the book is between Robbins and Henry. Robbins treats Henry like a son, similar to the way he treats Dora and Louis, his beloved children by his former slave Philomena.

    Edward P. Jones

    While Henry is still on his plantation as a slave, Robbins finds him to be intelligent and an extremely reliable groom. Robbins also gives him a trade by having another slave teach him how to make shoes and boots. After Augustus buys Henry's freedom, Henry sometimes returns to the plantation to make shoes and boots for Robbins's white guests. Such visits concern Henry's parents, but they do not stop him from going.

    Robbins goes on to teach Henry about finance, helps him buy his first slave, sells him his first piece of land, and stands up for him as necessary. Henry and Robbins are as close as a son and father, a relationship that emphasizes the complexities of race relations in Jones's novel. Like family and interpersonal relationships, there are many types of love relationships in The Known World , some of which are not as reliable as those between family and friends.

    Fern has a difficult marriage to a gambler named Ramsey, who is often gone on gambling sprees. She learns that he has probably cheated on her, though she remained faithful. Caldonia looks for comfort in the words and arms of Moses after her beloved Henry's death, though she will not allow the relationship to go beyond physical intimacy.

    Her brother Calvin is in love with Louis, but Calvin knows that Louis will not return his feelings and does not even try to have a relationship with him. Moses arranges for his wife and son to escape with Alice so that he can be free for Caldonia. While Robbins loves Philomena more than he loves his white wife and gives her much in the way of financial support, he also physically abuses her when she runs away to Richmond with their children. Not all love relationships are unhappy in the novel: Augustus and Mildred have a solid marriage.

    While John lusts for Minerva, he is faithful to Winifred until his death. Elias and Celeste also have a genuine, loving relationship. All of these love relationships show the depth and breadth of feelings, and ultimately the humanity of all involved. The Known World features a nonlinear plot: The action in the book does not move in a straightforward, chronological fashion. Instead, it moves back and forth in time and between the stories of different people, linking the events with common characters and situations. The primary plot focuses on the death of Henry Townsend and both its short-term and long-term effects on his family, slaves, and community.

    Woven around this primary plot are the backgrounds of Henry and his family as well as other characters such as Fern, John Skiffington, Winifred, and slaves such as Elias and Moses. Other stories are also included, such as the adventures of Counsel after his family and plantation are lost. The nonlinear plot creates drama and complexity as the action builds throughout the novel.

    Digressions are sprinkled liberally throughout The Known World. They are stories or episodes that are tangential to the primary action at hand. At the beginning of chapter 4, for example, Jones describes the background and motivation of Anderson Frazier, a white Canadian pamphlet writer who interviews Fern about blacks owning slaves, her friend Henry, and other matters in , years after the novel's primary action takes place. Jones includes much information about Anderson, his life, and his writing, which has nothing to do with the novel's main story or his interview with Fern.

    Similarly, in chapter 2, Jones describes the life and background of Mary O'Donnell Conlon, the New York woman who opens the crate hiding Rita among Augustus's walking sticks. Other tangents provide more specific information on what happens to characters after the end of the novel. In chapter 6, Jones reveals that Stamford eventually marries Delphie and starts his own orphanage. One of his great-granddaughters even gets a street name changed to honor him and his wife in the late s.

    Such digressions enrich Jones's novel while tying up loose ends. At the end of The Known World , Jones includes a postscript that acts as an epilogue. The epilogue is the closing section of a novel or play that often answers some of the questions left unanswered by the novel's end. Jones's epilogue centers around a letter written by Calvin to Caldonia, which reveals the fate of Priscilla and Alice. Readers also learn that Moses stayed on the plantation until his death.

    The dialogue in Jones's novel often reflects a colloquial diction: The arrangement and use of words in the dialogue reflect the every day speech of the time, place, and person in the story. Educated characters such as John, Caldonia, Fern, and Robbins generally speak in clear, correct English. Robbins tells Elias upon his capture, "I know Henry Townsend and if I have to pay for a dead one, then that is what I will do.

    Come here. Talking to Caldonia one night, Henry tells her "I'm tryin…. I spect I'll have the full armor by day after tomorrow. At one point, Priscilla tells Moses, "You best tell her bout Stamford. Though much of the historical data such as census records , facts such as the burning of a courthouse in , and academic reports, as well as the county of Manchester, were created by Jones, the basic premise of the book is based in truth: Some free blacks did own other blacks as slaves in pre-Civil War America.

    In , census figures show that free blacks owned slaves in at least four states: Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina , and Virginia. These free blacks owned at least 10, slaves in total, with most concentrated in Louisiana. Thirty years later, while the vast majority of the approximately , people identified as slave owners were white, free blacks continued to own slaves. In the states where slavery was legal in , there were about four million black people, and only about , were free. Some of the free blacks who were listed as owning slaves actually had purchased a family member such as a spouse or a child.

    For legal or other reasons, such owners were unable to free the family member whose freedom they purchased. In The Known World , for example, Augustus purchases the freedom of his wife Mildred and his son Henry, but they are legally his slaves.


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    Concerning Henry, Jones writes, "people in Manchester County just failed to remember that Henry, in fact, was listed forever in the records of Manchester as his father's property. Other free blacks owned slaves who were unrelated to them and used as workers. For example, in South Carolina in , it was estimated that about 25 percent of all free blacks who owned slaves possessed at least ten slaves. There were eight who owned more than thirty slaves, including Justus Angel and Mistress L. Angel and Horry each owned eighty-four slaves in Another example can be found in New Orleans , Louisiana, where over ten thousand free blacks lived.

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    About three thousand of these free blacks were slave owners. Like their white counterparts, the vast majority of free black slave owners owned fewer than five slaves. In South Carolina in , there were free blacks who owned slaves, but only six owned more than ten. William Ellison owned more slaves than any other free black man in South Carolina in Ellison was born into slavery with the name of April but, like Henry Townsend, learned some trades and bookkeeping. He was freed by his white master, also known as William Ellison, at the age of twenty-six, and he became a significant slave and land owner who made a fortune manufacturing cotton gins and breeding slaves.

    Free blacks owned slaves in other states as well just before the Civil War began, including Virginia, where several hundred free blacks owned land and other property. Some of them owned slaves, though they had once been slaves themselves. One such person was Gilbert Hunt. A former slave, Hunt lived in Richmond, worked as a blacksmith, and owned two slaves. In in Louisiana, at least six free blacks owned more than sixty-five slaves. The owners of a sugar cane plantation, a widow named C.

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    Richards and her son P. Another free black man with a significant sugar cane operation, Antoine Dubuclet, also owned more than one hundred slaves. Some free blacks even became voluntarily enslaved. Johnson and James L. Roak claim that there were several examples of free blacks going to court to be allowed to become slaves again. Such free blacks made this choice primarily because of their difficulty providing for themselves. In general, The Known World was lauded as an extraordinary novel when published in Critics praised Jones's subject matter and the way in which he handled it, as well as his characterizations, prose, and the way he paced and constructed the story.

    Calling the novel "the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years," Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post went on to state, " The Known World ventures into previously uncovered places and shines a light on them that is at once blindingly bright and surpassingly warm. A number of critics admired how Jones drew his characters and interlinked their stories. For example, Conger Beasley, Jr.

    Jones's brilliance as a writer stems in part from his proportioned sense of each individual's struggle. Though The Known World is complex, many critics believe that Jones succeeded at balancing the many threads of his story. In Time , Lev Grossman wrote, " The Known World is a glorious, enthralling, tangled root ball of a book—but always returning to the story's tragic core.

    Some critics took issue with the novel's convoluted stories and characterizations. The critic in Kirkus Reviews commented, "The first hundred pages are daunting, as the reader struggles to sort out initially glimpsed characters and absorb Jones's handling of historical background information. Harris-Lopez also stated, "All the things I found engaging about the novel were subsumed by the exasperation of having to go through so much detail about minor characters.

    Petrusso is a freelance writer with degrees in history and screenwriting. In this essay, Petrusso examines the female characters in the novel, comparing the varying degrees of power they wield. Jones had the following to say about the "dynamic women" in his book:.

    There are such women nowadays, and these women can't be the first ones. There must've been women like that before. I'm not doing anything extraordinary with them. I don't have some woman running for the Senate in Virginia in —that would be ridiculous. You have women who, within the scheme of things, are able to stand up and assert themselves.

    Jones goes on to point out that Fern "knows that she has a certain power" because she taught the children of William Robbins, the leading white citizen, landowner, and slave owner in Manchester County. Specifically, Fern is able to put the white men who work as patrollers in their place after just one incident of harassment because of her connection to Robbins, who takes care of the matter for her. Fern is not the only female character who has power and uses it in some significant way in the novel. None become passive victims of their circumstances but assert varying, and sometimes surprising, amounts of influence considering the time and place of the novel.

    Though they must all struggle with the effects of male domination, their strength allows them some amount of control over their own destinies in certain circumstances. Arguably the most powerful woman in The Known World is Fern, and not simply because she can count on Robbins to right race-related wrongs for her. Fern chooses to live as a free black when she could pass for white, as other members of her family do. She could walk away from her life as a free black woman if she so chose, an option few others in the novel possess.

    Even living as a free black, Fern still has power because she is educated and has passed on that education to other free blacks, such as Louis and Dora Cartwright and Caldonia and her twin brother Calvin, as their teacher. Her position gives her status in the community and a following she could potentially draw on if she desired.

    In addition, Fern owns a house and slaves. However, like every powerful person in The Known World and the world itself , Fern has an Achilles heel. She is married to Ramsey Elston, a free black man who leaves her when he goes on gambling and drinking sprees. While, Fern remains loyal to him, even to the point of not bathing while he is gone as he desires, her loyalty does have limits. Fern's world becomes unstable when she learns from Jebediah that her husband has been unfaithful to her in Richmond.

    But because the novel moves around in time, readers learn that Fern overcomes this problem, marries other men, and retains her property and influence.

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    It is significant that the pamphlet writer Anderson Frazier seeks out Fern—not anyone else—in for information about the area, its people, and slavery. Fern is embodies authority, reason, and support to many, especially Caldonia. Like Fern, Maude and Caldonia have power and influence as free blacks and slave owners.

    Maude is a formidable woman from a long line of free, though poor and non-slave owning, blacks. She marries a former slave, Tilmon Newman, who had bought his freedom. Later in their marriage, Maude convinces her husband to focus on building up their own family and financial circumstances, including purchasing slaves, instead of following through with his original plan to buy the freedom of his parents and two other family members. Those four people die while still enslaved.

    Maude goes as far as to murder her husband by poisoning him with arsenic rather than let him free the slaves he owns. Maude is enthralled with economic power, what she terms "legacy," and she plans to pass the slaves and wealth she has on to her son Calvin. Maude also exerts power over her son in another way.

    She forces him to care for her for many years while she is sick with a mysterious illness, even though she "really didn't like him anymore. Maude tries to influence Caldonia in a different way. Maude's first concern when Henry dies is that Caldonia will be like her father and want to free her slaves, instead of embracing the economic power Henry's death gives her.

    Maude glosses over Caldonia's grief about Henry. The mother does not stay as long as Fern does when Caldonia needs her love and support. Yet Caldonia understands what she has inherited and the problems that go with it. As with Maude, Caldonia's power is primarily economic and is derived from owning the land and slaves that Henry left her, though she also is educated and can count on Robbins's support as needed because of the connection he had with Henry.

    But Caldonia's sorrow over the unexpected death of her husband and inexperience as a slave owner lead to problems that undermine that power. She starts an ill-advised sexual relationship with her slave overseer, Moses, in an attempt to feel closer to Henry. Caldonia also does not manage her slaves as well as she could; six run away, and only Moses is caught and returned. Jones implies that the situation at the Townsend plantation stabilizes when Caldonia marries Louis Cartwright, Robbins's son with his former slave Philomena Cartwright.

    While they are free black women, all of their power and prosperity comes directly from their relationship with Robbins, and thus has its limits. Philomena was a teenage slave whom Robbins bought from Robert Colfax, another rich white man in Manchester County, after seeing her at the Colfax plantation. Robbins soon begins a sexual relationship with Philomena and treats her more as his beloved mistress than slave.

    He moves Philomena off the plantation and into a house with a maid; he frees her and buys her mother, brother, and friend Sophie for her as she requests; and he has two children with her, Dora and Louis, whom he adores. Robbins also has Fern educate both of his children, spends time with them, and showers them with love and affection.

    Yet Philomena is still in some sense enslaved to Robbins, as he has control over her life. Everything she has comes from Robbins, which keeps her from the one thing she desperately wants: a life elsewhere. For years before Philomena left the Colfax plantation, Sophie filled Philomena's head with ideas about the greatness of the city of Richmond, though she had never been there herself. After Philomena is living in her own home, she runs away to Richmond at least twice.

    When Philomena goes to Richmond with young Louis and Dora, Robbins beats her so severely when he finds her that she cannot eat as well on one side of her mouth for the rest of her life. Though there is no doubt of Robbins's intense feelings toward Philomena and Dora, they would have very little in the way of economic power or any other type of power without him. In some ways, several of the slave women in The Known World have more power than the "free" Philomena.

    Alice, especially, knows how to create power in difficult circumstances. As Moses comes to realize, Alice's whole "crazy in the head" persona is fake. She was allegedly kicked in the head by a mule years earlier and has been eccentric ever since. Alice chants, sings, and dances seemingly without regard to time, place, or circumstance. Creating this persona allows her to roam around freely at night despite being enslaved. Or he has invented it The frequent insertion of the research materials into the story itself creates a persistently distracting temporal perspective Whether true or false, [the research materials] distract a reader from the immediate narrative, breaking up the time frame and constantly reminding us that we are reading a reconstruction of a time and place If only he had focused on the today of the s, known or invented, what a marvelous novel this might have been.

    Rave Valerie Martin , The Guardian. One great achievement of Edward Jones's Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Known World is the circumscription of its moral vision, which locates the struggle between good and evil not in the vicissitudes of the diabolical slaveholding system of the American south, but inside the consciousness of each person, black or white, slave or free, who attempts to flourish within that soul-deadening system Award Winners. Madeleine Is Sleeping. The March. El mundo conocido , Tropismos. The Known World , HarperCollins.

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