Top critical review
No surprises here for a multicultural reader
on January 5, 2004
The tragedy of this Edward P. Jones novel is slavery, period. And the woeful tale of this set of characters is subject to yet another version of the American saga which presents one more twist of the knife in the heart of humanity.
How could a black man, a former slave, bought out of slavery by his formerly slave parents, an only and most prized son, emulate his former slave owner and become a master of his own race, a slave owner?
Well it happened. And this story originates in Virginia with interjected references to the descendants of its characters who will finally live in freedom and make an in-road into the leadership of coming generations.
If anyone has read the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, David Bradley, John Edgar Wideman, they know of the many other voices of the black man's story in America. And if one reads Edward Jones and becomes fascinated by his revelations, let me advise you that his skills replicate those of other black authors also of this time who have written before him.
In fact, for all his notice in the world of literature, Jones is not the writer that his predecessors who still live and write are. His writing is rather disjointed in comparison.
But if Jones' work and subject matter so move you, springboard from this book, if it is pivotal to you, and read Wideman, Bradley, Morrison, Walker, and saturate yourself in an even greater understanding of the legacy of slavery in this nation now in its 21st century.
Truly, while reading Jones' work, even the start of Moses' time in the wilderness, a private and sensual freedom from his Master's control, recalls to mind the stories found in Walker's "Meridian" and Morrison's "Song of Solomon" with the rich tribal mysticism of those African slaves so recently from another continent. Those characters, too, isolate themselves into the wilds and seek rejoinder with their African past, in most primitive expressions not unlike that which Moses executes and his fellow slaves witness in secret.
Most poignant in this novel, of course, is the shocking reality of the continued brutality to the black freeman, who once free, having labored long to buy his way out of slavery, is subject to the whim of roving speculators, those scum of the underworld who trade in human flesh beyond the hand of justice.
The ironical death of the black slave master, Henry Townsend, and the quandry into which his educated wife Caldonia is thrown seems so unlikely. But one has only to remember the blue vein society of blacks who "passed" and their stories of class systems against their own race as revealed in the short stories of Charles W. Chestnutt, particularly the story, "The Wife of His Youth", to realize that Henry Townsend's widow and her upper crust friends lack the strength of character to free their slaves; their people and their weakness is only human, though inhumane.
The corruption of owning others is copied by Henry Townsend who eventually lives free, but remains as the best friend and surrogate son of his former white master, William Robbins. He rejects the example of his own flesh, his father Augustus, and enters into the money-making proposition of owning those of his own race so as to prosper and reach a gentleman's status, as high as he can go in the ranks of free blacks.
Henry's first slave, Moses'plan to seduce the grieving Caldonia and come to be the surviving master, shows his personal deception. He has been a slave, the foreman of the Townsend slaves, and believes he can rise out of his slave ranks to those of master via marriage. Another fool he, another dupe to the wicked deception that is integral to slavery.
There is a powerfully tragic tale to be told in these pages. Don't let them be the last that you read about this subject. Read the works of other black writers of our time and LEARN.