Slave-owning by free blacks in antebellum America is the astonishingly rich subject of this impressively researched, challenging novel debut by Faulkner Award–winning Jones (stories: Lost in the City, 1992).
Set mostly in the period 1830–50, many nested and interrelated stories revolve around the death of black Virginia farmer and slaveholder Henry Townsend, himself a former slave who had purchased his own freedom, as was—and did—his father Augustus, a gifted woodcarver. Jones’s flexible narrative moves from the travail of Augustus and his wife Mildred through Henry’s conflicted life as both servant and master, to survey as well the lives of Armstrong slaves, from their early years on to many decades after Henry’s passing. The first hundred pages are daunting, as the reader struggles to sort out initially quickly glimpsed characters and absorb Jones’s handling of historical background information (which virtually never feels obtrusive or oppressive, thanks to his eloquent prose and palpable high seriousness). The story steadily gathers overpowering momentum, as we learn more about such vibrant figures as Henry’s introspective spouse Caldonia, his wily overseer Moses, the long-suffering mutilated slave Elias and his crippled wife Celeste, the brutal “patrollers” charged with hunting down runaways (one of whom, duplicitous Harvey Travis, is a villain for the ages), and county sheriff John Skiffington, a decent man who nevertheless cannot shrug off “responsibilities” with which his culture has provisioned, and burdened, him. The particulars and consequences of the “right” of humans to own other humans are dramatized with unprecedented ingenuity and intensity, in a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice—even during a prolonged climax when two searches produce bitter results and presage the vanishing of a “known world” unable to isolate itself from the shaping power of time and change.
This will mean a great deal to a great many people. It should be a major prize contender, and it won’t be forgotten.