Edward Jones’s thought-provoking The Known World practically defines the word “sprawling". An epic, richly layered tale of pre-Civil War America, The Known World creates something like half a dozen main characters and tons of bit-part players, each of whom is given a rich and detailed background. Set mostly in Virginia, the novel takes for its touchstone the death of Henry Townsend, a black man who rose from slavery to become owner of a plantation and a crew of his own slaves.
The death is a harbinger of chaos for his plantation as his wife, Caldonia, overcome with grief, allows her control of the land and the slaves to slip. She even, at one point, falls into a relationship with one of the slaves, with disastrous results. But that is just a part of the story.
Jones uses Henry’s death – and life – as door to the lives of many people of that era, including not only Henry, his wife and his parents, but also his slaves, the town sheriff and countless others. Amazingly enough, Jones draws each one of his characters as a flesh-and-blood human being. Henry is the most obviously complicated. Freed from slavery by his parents, he then gravely disappoints them by becoming a slave owner. But there’s more to his story than that – most notably, a wonderfully complex relationship between Henry and his former owner, William Robbins, who respects and likes Henry and eventually guides him in adulthood. Robbins is himself a puzzle, often preferring the company of his black mistress and their children to life with his own wife.
All the characters have complex motives and are all undeniably human -- even the sheriff’s bigoted cousin, Counsel Skiffington, who is brash, violent and ignorant but has suffered enough hardship to generate some sympathy. Jones gives all of his characters depth and lets them all bump into one another in a convincing way. In doing so, he tells volumes about a period in history and attitudes about race, class and education. But, most of all, he creates interesting people. And, that, in the end, is what sets The Known World apart.