Rearranging our views of history
Published: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 12:44 a.m.
If you've ever wondered what it would feel like to own your girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse or child, "The Known World" gives a good dip into the complications arising from mixing real estate with love. My conkiejawed humor might leave you flat. (Don't try to look up "conkiejawed." It's a southernism meaning "beyond nutty.") But reading this extraordinary novel is rearranging our view of history.
Jones makes it oh-so-very clear that in certain company in a certain time, we all do as everyone does. In other words, environment, culture, time and space often define who we are and how we behave.
African Americans owning slaves, the subject of "The Known World," gets down-and-dirty in letting us feel what it does to the soul when a beloved asks, "Will you set me free?" and the answer is, "No."
I'm not going to give away the plot, but let's just say Moses, a slave, becomes sadly desperate when his relationship with his black owner puts them both in a moral sticky place.
Look at how many ways Jones plays with time. He crafts paragraphs that mix tenses, swirling the past tense with the future and past perfect. For me, this technique creates a sense of suspense, telling me, "Wait, wait, what I want you to really know will happen in a minute."
He opens the story with several storylines, raising the curiosity of how all these lines will converge. The author calls on our patience and then delivers.
Clearly, the character, Robbins, who is a wealthy white landowner, shows how the mind can be split as it rationalizes slavery. He can love a black woman while at the same time treating other blacks as coldly as property. And his horse - oh, boy that horse - he says it all about the force of indifference when Henry, the slave who cares for him hours at a time, learns, "If the horse recognized the boy from all the work he did, it never showed."
The title reverberates clearly in the scene on page 174. A map is described. It is 8 feet by 6 feet, a brown-and-yellow woodcut that a Russian sold to an American. The map is titled, "The Known World," and the Russian explains that this map represents the first time the word "America" had ever been placed on a picture of the world. Of special interest to us is the detail:
"The land of North America on the map was smaller than it was in actuality, and where Florida should have been, there was nothing."
Next week, we'll talk about favorite characters. Frankly, Alice, the mule-kicked night wanderer and singer, is becoming my favorite, so far. But what about Elias, Augustus and the moral force of John Skiffington?
Don Doyle, near Ocala, tells us, "I'm making copies (of the discussion of this book) to use in my creative writing classes at The Villages College."
So get in on the conversation. We'll soon be hearing from middle-schoolers on "Fever 1793." Marilyn Shaw, who is a literacy coach at Oak View Middle School in Newberry says, "I notice spellbound students reading 'Fever,' and our media specialist says she can't keep copies on the shelves. I read it when one became available. Not only is the book well-crafted from a storytelling perspective, but it offers tremendous insight into life and events of that era that are so very distant from our students. Anderson doesn't just help us learn about the epidemic of 1793, she makes us feel it.
For a subject that seems awfully dry and factual to students, such books are the perfect 'hook' to get students involved in our history."
Next week, Ally Dickinson from Westwood Middle School in Gainesville will lead off our discussion.
Meanwhile, kick off your shoes, settle into a soft chair and turn those pages. Live through yellow fever in Laurie Anderson's novel and escape from bondage as a soul trapped in "The Known World." Join our novel conversation.
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