Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reading Roundup: Not What I Expected, Part 1

This is going to be a story of two books I recently read and how they turned out to be entirely different than what I had expected at the beginning. I can't honestly say that happens very often in my reading adventures; I guess I'm usually just a pretty good early judge of my opinion, but these both surprised me.

The first was last month's book club selection, The Known World by Edward P. Jones. At first encounter, I thought, "Oh boy, it's a book about slavery. What an upper." And then I saw it won the Pulitzer, and I thought, "Oh boy, it's gonna be boring, too." And yes, it was. For a bit. The structure is non-linear and there's about a billion characters, which requires some time and dedication to fully grasp and get into. But somewhere just past a third of the way in, I got into it, and it turned out to be really stunning.

So yes, The Known World is about slavery, which I unfairly judge as a boring topic I've encountered one too many times, thanks to high school English. But, it's not really about the white vs. black theme of slavery predominant in American literature; it's about free blacks (specifically, a freed slave) owning slaves. The man around which all revolves, Henry Townsend, has had his freedom since he was a boy, when his free parents bought Henry's freedom from his master, William Robbins. Henry had an atypical upbringing as a slave under Robbins, who took Henry under his wing, made sure he was educated, and treated him more like a son than property. As a result, Henry adopted Robbin's belief system as an adult, which caused conflict between his parents, his plantation, and the Virginian society directly outside his realm of reign.

In this Virginia town that upheld slavery as an acceptable institution in society, free blacks owning slaves contradicted how things "were supposed to be." What Jones did—he made slavery less about race and more about class, invalidating all the rules from slavery that put blacks below whites. Naturally, this caused chaos that slowly, but surely, caused the town to essentially implode, as the rules of society and morality were called into question.

Jones' characters are complex with all the grey areas left open to explore. A single action can quickly shift your opinion, because no one is ever fully good or fully bad enough to have warranted permanent placement on either end of the spectrum. On a similar note, the scattered, time-jumping structure of the story can leave you wishing for more on some characters while other important ones reach their fate abruptly. The Known World keeps you on your toes, and you need focus while reading it. As I learned, it's not a book to be read in short snippets on your morning and evening subway commute. But it is very satisfying by the end, when you feel like you were plopped down in this specific place and time with these people and rules and you watch it all unfold and figure out what it all means.

By the way, there's a list of characters at the END of the book. Yeah, no one in book club realized that one until it was too late, either.

For brevity's sake, I'll post my second review at a later date. That turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, and I don't want to bore you to death...

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