A list gave the final nudge. I had noted this book, its praise, its award, and the intriguing subject, but never picked it up. Something else was always more pressing. Then, over at The Millions, this book came in slotted as #2 on their list of “The Best Fiction of the Millenium (So Far)”. I took the hint.
While this is a very good book, a fine literary accomplishment, and an impressive feat of imagination, it is not a favorite book of mine. I can be a very finicky reader. I hold things against books. I probably did with this one. Discussing what things would reveal too much, but I can assure you they are likely my own personal quirks. The book is fine.
If you do not know, this book relates the history of black slaveowners in a fictional county in antebellum Virginia. Jones uses this intriguing setup to examine the effects of slavery and a racial caste system on human relations. The task Jones sets himself is a demanding one, but he manages to pull off a spin good yarn while having something interesting to say. He could have done much worse.
A slave, Augustus Townsend, manages to purchase his own freedom. He then works to purchase the freedom of his family. He purchases his wife, Mildred, first. Augustus and Mildred then save to purchase their son, Henry from William Robbins, the white plantation owner who, at one time, owned them all. Henry is a very smart boy and a dedicated servant to William Robbins. His industriousness leads him to have an atypically close relationship with Robbins. Further, he learns a skill, bootmaking, that earns extra money. Robbins is loathe to sell the boy and raises the price. Henry is well into his teens by the time Augustus and Mildred are able to purchase him.
Henry’s intelligence, ambition, and relationship with Robbins set the stage for Henry to purchase a slave to work for him. His parents are outraged that Henry, a former slave, would choose to own another human being. Henry’s rise and fall (death) provides the basic framework for the novel. (Lest you worry, the book opens with Henry already dead.)
Henry’s life is interesting enough, but Jones did not settle for the examination of a single man. The novel contains a large cast of characters, to almost all of whose thoughts we are privy at one point or another. Henry’s first slave and eventual overseer, Moses, is a more central character than Henry himself. The inner conflicts and turmoils of Sheriff John Skiffington, a man who wanted to move to the North and never own slaves, are often more compelling than those of Henry. Alice, “the Night Walker”, may be a more potently symbolic character. Elias and Celeste, too, are essential and as fully developed as Henry, perhaps more so. In short, this book is much more than an examination of what one black slaveowner may have been like. The novel contains a fully realized and populated Virginia county, however fictional it is.
The structure, too, is worth mentioning. The novel does not tell a linear story. Henry begins the novel dead, but Jones takes the reader backwards and forwards in time throughout the novel. Occasionally, time and location are shifted for seemingly unconnected or tangential digressions. Jones fits it all together, however, without leaving the reader stranded. In some ways, the approach feels unnecessary, but, by jumping around as he does, Jones does make connections for the reader that might otherwise be lost.
And Jones is sensitive to his reader. The cast of characters is sufficiently large that most readers would have at least some trouble keeping them all straight. Jones often reminds readers of information they should already know, such as that Alice is the slave who had been kicked in the head by a mule, several times throughout. Towards the end of the novel, this technique feels like a little too much hand holding, but I will admit it helped in the beginning.
Less intrusively, Jones helps orient the reader to the incongruity of black slaveowners in the American South by sharing the thoughts of the slaves:
Moses as the first slave Henry Townsend had bought: $325 and a bill of sale from William Robbins, a white man. It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Sleeping in a cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there attending to business?
Moses went into his cabin and met the darkness and a dead hearth. Outside, the light of Elias’s lamp leaned this way and that and then it dimmed even more. Elias had never believed in a sane God and so had never questioned a world where colored people could be the owners of slaves, and if at that moment, in the near dark, he had sprouted wings, he would not have questioned that either.
And, too, Jones provides us with some historical (fictionally historical) context. He gives the reader census statistics, information about the area, and introduces Anderson Frazier:
Beginning in the mid-1870s and continuing throughout most of the 1880s, a white man from Canada, Anderson Frazier, made a good living in Boston publishing two-cent pamphlets about America and its people, especially what he called their ‘peculiarities.’….
…It was in the South that Anderson came upon material he would later put in a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors. The Economy of Cotton. Good Food Made from Next to Nothing. The Flora and Fauna. The Need for Storytelling. This series was Anderson’s most successful, and nothering was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States.
Anderson Frazier happens upon Fern Elston, a woman who taught free black children and, when he was grown, Henry Townsend. Jones uses their conversation to provide greater historical context, some perspective, and something of a postscript. The chronological hopscotch occasionally lands on Elston’s porch where Frazier is trying to find out as much as possible from Elston about Henry and the history of the county.
In all, I do think this is a very successful novel. As I noted, most of the “history” is actually fiction. The county itself is a fabrication, for instance. But it works in ways that The March did not. At least for me. Of course, I have my disappointments with the novel. There are things I would have preferred the author handled differently. There are some weaknesses both in the writing (very minor) and in the substance (my own opinion, no doubt). Finally, though, the novel achieves what I suspect the author set out to achieve. It is hard to give higher praise, particularly when the author’s goals were set high. While not my favorite of the decade, it may legitimately be included on a list of the best.