The Known World and Our World

The library sponsors two book discussion groups; the newest one is focused this first year on the theme “Good Jobs, Good Work.”  When several of us were working on the list of books, the only one that made it onto the list with which I was unfamiliar was The Known World by Edward P. Jones.  I came to it with a reluctance I cannot explain, but I learned quite quickly in reading it that it is a masterpiece.

Jones writes about something that happened in Virginia which has received little scrutiny:  the phenomenon of free African Americans who owned slaves.   The book is set in the largest county in Virginia in the 1840s, a fictional place called Manchester County.

This is not the typical story of slavery in America [if in fact a typical story exists].  Everyone in the narrative is a mix of good and bad qualities.  No one is a complete villain or saint.  In short, the characters are human—all too human.  For me, the importance of the relationships in the narrative is what drives the novel and what makes it interesting to me.

Jones shows that the issues that pile up around power and its use against our fellow human beings are colorblind.  In slavery, we see those issues writ large.  There are people striving to be free, and people who are in the business of denying them that freedom.  There are people who believe slavery to be an evil, and yet who are caught in its web so fully that they seem incapable of extricating themselves.

Why would such a book be in a discussion list for “Good Jobs, Good Work”? For one thing, we need to realize as we talk about ways our community can survive and thrive, that we dare not exclude anyone from the discussion.  In a community brought low by economic reality, it will take all of us and all of our ideas to extricate ourselves.  Rather than being worried about our own stature and power and safety, we need to remember that as a community we are only as strong as our weakest members.

We need everyone, and we will survive or fail together.

Last time I wrote, I mentioned lists of favorite books of 2010.  If you would like to see a list compiled from the librarians who post on the PUBLIB listserv, go here:

Next time, I’ll tell you about my experiences with my new Nook ebook reader.

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