Edward P. Jones’s The Known World moves back and forth between different times and locales to tell the varied stories of many characters, both white and black. A number of these stories center on the lives of people who have crossed the path of Henry Townsend, an African American man who was once a slave and is now a slave owner. Henry is certain that he will be a better master than the white slaveholders he has known, but once he becomes a slave owner, he does none of the good he had intended to do and becomes indistinguishable from the white slave owners in the county. William Robbins, a white plantation owner, helps the hardworking Henry acquire his own land and his own slaves. He also keeps a beloved black mistress by whom he has two children. A similar figure, Fern Elston, is a freed slave who could pass for white but who makes her living as a teacher of the local black children. Also a slave owner, she too forms an erotic bond with a slave, but, as with Robbins, her status as a slave owner makes a mockery of the possibility of real love, friendship, or family.
Henry’s achievements as a slave owner begin to unravel at his death. His father, Augustus, a freed slave, dies after being sold back into slavery through the complicity of the county sheriff’s poor white deputies. Henry’s death brings not only vulnerability to Augustus but also a sense of opportunity for his favorite slave, Moses, who hopes to marry Henry’s widow. Disdaining association with the other slaves, including his son and his son’s mother, Moses nevertheless finds no white mentor and no success as a suitor to the wife of his former master; he ends ignominiously as a soon-captured runaway slave.
Although he is in principle against slavery, Sheriff John Skiffington tracks the runaway Moses to the house of Henry’s mother, Mildred, who, like her husband, is a freed slave....
(The entire section is 766 words.)