My long dormant local book club is back in swing and this was our first read of the new year, and my submission. I happened upon this book at a used book sale and after seeing that it had won the Pulitzer and cost $1.50, adding it to my “to read” pile was sort of a no brainer. My book club has some tough cookies so I was a little anxious since it was basically a blind suggestion from me, but it turned out to be a great pick because it is a well-written novel and ripe for discussion.
Henry Townsend is born into slavery but freed as a young man due to the tireless work of his father. Much to his parents’ dismay, he follows the tutelage of his former master and becomes a slave owner. This novel follows the short life of Henry, and the sequences of events that unfold for everyone who was part of his life. This is a hard read though, not only because of the subject matter but because Jones’ use of non-linear storytelling is hard to follow. The list of characters is long and his rich prose makes you want to take your time, but a leisurely read quickly becomes confusing as it is easy to confuse characters. It’s a bit of a push and pull in that way, and it definitely took me longer to read because of this struggle. Even though, I’m glad I stuck with it. In fact, I think it’s one I’ll hold on to and retread it in the future. There are just so many rich passages to savor.
This particular passage about Moses the overseer and his inability to plan for the future is almost the thesis of the book, and Jones’ style: matter of fact, and without agenda. “But the sun did not rise very high in Moses’s life, and it was only one day at a time and no one day was kin to the next.” The characters simply live their lives, and the story unfolds.
My favorite passage, and a rare bit of humor, refers to when Townsend’s former master wants a tutor to take him on as a student to teach him to read and write. “A man does not learn very well, Mr. Robbins. Women, yes, because they are used to bending with whatever wind comes along. A woman, no matter the age, is always learning, always becoming. But a man, if you will pardon me, stops learning at fourteen or so. Her shuts it all down, Mr. Robbins. A log is capable of learning more than a man. To teach a man would be a battle, a war, and I would lose.”
I could share paragraph after paragraph of rich text, and clever phrasing. I’m not one for writing in a book, but this one is dog-eared and highlighted. I’m definitely going to be recommending this book to others, and I’ll be looking to read his other novels as well. In thighs is instance, I’d say the accolades were well-deserved, and I’m very glad this fascinating book came into my life.