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The Known World
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The Known World

3.7 153
by Edward P. Jones, Davis (Editor)

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Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusual mentor -- William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia's Manchester County. Under Robbins's tutelage, Henry becomes proprietor of his own plantation -- as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to


Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusual mentor -- William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia's Manchester County. Under Robbins's tutelage, Henry becomes proprietor of his own plantation -- as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart at their plantation: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend estate, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave "speculators" sell free black people into slavery, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years.

An ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges seamlessly between the past and future and back again to the present, The Known World weaves together the lives of freed and enslaved blacks, whites, and Indians -- and allows all of us a deeper understanding of the enduring multidimensional world created by the institution of slavery.

Editorial Reviews

QBR-The Black Book Review
“Complex, beautifully written, and breathtaking...the book will knock the wind out of you with the depth of its compassion.”
The New York Times
At the end of Edward P. Jones's stunning new antebellum novel, an artist recreates the book's plantation setting as "a map of life made with every kind of life man has ever thought to represent himself." One of the characters says, "It is what God sees when He looks down."

The author's viewpoint has the same effect in this book about slavery, property, freedom and family, all in a most unusual setting. With hard-won wisdom and hugely effective understatement, Mr. Jones explores the unsettling, contradiction-prone world of a Virginia slaveholder who happens to be black. — Janet Maslin

The New Yorker
On a small plantation in Manchester County, Virginia, in the eighteen-fifties, a freed black man named Henry Townsend lives with his wife and the thirty-three slaves he has bought, some with the help of his former owner. This kaleidoscopic first novel depicts daily life for Henry and his friends (“members of a free Negro class that, while not having the power of some whites, had been brought up to believe that they were rulers waiting in the wings”); for the plantation’s slaves, one of whom believes that he, too, will be transformed into an owner after Henry’s death; and for the county’s white inhabitants, who coexist uneasily with their slaves and their emancipated black neighbors. Jones has written a book of tremendous moral intricacy: no relationship here is left unaltered by the bonds of ownership, and liberty eludes most of Manchester County’s residents, not just its slaves.
The Washington Post
The bizarre world of American slavery has been the subject of much fiction, some of it uncommonly good, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to William Faulkner to Toni Morrison. This extraordinary novel -- the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years -- takes as its subject one of the most peculiar anomalies of that endlessly provocative and troubling subject: In the antebellum South, where whites systematically enslaved blacks, there were free blacks who themselves owned black slaves. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
In a crabbed, powerful follow-up to his National Book Award-nominated short story collection (Lost in the City), Jones explores an oft-neglected chapter of American history, the world of blacks who owned blacks in the antebellum South. His fictional examination of this unusual phenomenon starts with the dying 31-year-old Henry Townsend, a former slave-now master of 33 slaves of his own and more than 50 acres of land in Manchester County, Va.-worried about the fate of his holdings upon his early death. As a slave in his youth, Henry makes himself indispensable to his master, William Robbins. Even after Henry's parents purchase the family's freedom, Henry retains his allegiance to Robbins, who patronizes him when he sets up shop as a shoemaker and helps him buy his first slaves and his plantation. Jones's thorough knowledge of the legal and social intricacies of slaveholding allows him to paint a complex, often startling picture of life in the region. His richest characterizations-of Robbins and Henry-are particularly revealing. Though he is a cruel master to his slaves, Robbins is desperately in love with a black woman and feels as much fondness for Henry as for his own children; Henry, meanwhile, reads Milton, but beats his slaves as readily as Robbins does. Henry's wife, Caldonia, is not as disciplined as her husband, and when he dies, his worst fears are realized: the plantation falls into chaos. Jones's prose can be rather static and his phrasings ponderous, but his narrative achieves crushing momentum through sheer accumulation of detail, unusual historical insight and generous character writing. Agent, Eric Simonoff. (Sept.) Forecast: This is a new tack for Jones, whose collection Lost in the City was set in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s and '70s. Amistad is sending the novel off with a bang-a 10-city author tour, a 20-city national radio campaign-and it should attract considerable review attention. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This ambitious first novel by National Book Award nominee Jones (Lost in the City: Stories) looks at slavery from an unusual angle. Henry Townsend is a former slave who was purchased and freed by his own father. Through hard work, he has acquired 50 acres of farmland in Virginia. Given the slave-based agricultural economy, Townsend believes that the logical (and legal) way to work the land is with slaves, and, eventually, he owns more than 30. Although he is less brutal than his neighbors, most of his slaves dream of escaping north. When they try, Townsend must pay the white patrollers to return them or be seen as irresponsible. But as rumors of bloody slave rebellions spread through the South, unscrupulous bounty hunters begin to round up free blacks, Native Americans, and white orphans along with the escapees. By focusing on an African American slaveholder, Jones forcefully demonstrates how institutionalized slavery jeopardized all levels of civilized society so that no one was really free. A fascinating look at a painful theme, this book is an ideal choice for book clubs. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/03.]-Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 thatscarcely 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. Author tour. Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit
San Diego Union-Tribune
“’The Known World’ is a great novel, one that may eventually be placed with the best of American Literature.”
Starred Library Journal
” An exemplar of historical fiction. . . [it] will subdue your preconceptions, enrich your perceptions and trouble your sleep.. . .The way Jones tells this story. . .recalls Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”
O Magazine
“One of those rare works of fiction that both wound and heal.”
Booklist (starred)
“A profoundly beautiful and insightful look at American slavery and human nature.”
Book Magazine
“Vivid....[An] epic novel.”
” An exemplar of historical fiction. . . [it] will subdue your preconceptions, enrich your perceptions and trouble your sleep.. . .The way Jones tells this story. . .recalls Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”
“If Jones. . .keeps up this level of work, he’ll equal the best fiction Toni Morrison has written about being black in America.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Brilliant...Jones’ novel movingly evokes one small landscape of a larger map that so stubbornly yields up its truths today”
The Washington Times
“Stunning....Pitch-perfect....Too much cannot be said about Mr. Jones gifts as a storyteller and a stylist.”
“A masterpiece that deserves a place in the American literary canon.”
Time magazine
“A masterpiece that deserves a place in the American literary canon.”
Baltimore Sun
“Fascinating...poignant....[A] complex and fine novel.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Once you start the book you are hooked....Consider this novel necessary reading.”
New York Times
“Stunning....His first novel is...likely to win acclaim.”
Dallas Morning News
“Heartrending....[The Known World] walks with the pace and solemnity of the Bible.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Breathtaking....A fascinating counterweight to Toni Morrison’s Beloved....It is essential reading.”
“An incredible saga.”
Chicago Tribune Books
“A grand and inspired work of historical fiction. . .[It] deserves every word of praise that comes its way.”
Seattle Times
“Extraordinary.....Nothing...quite prepares readers for the imaginative leaps and technical prowess of ‘The Known World.’”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Brilliant....Glorious....[The Known World] belongs on the shelf with other classics of slavery, like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”
QBR: The Black Book Review
"Complex, beautifully written, and breathtaking...the book will knock the wind out of you with the depth of its compassion."
People (4-Starred Critic's Choice)
“This...magical novel will touch you in a profound way.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Fascinating . . .There is grief and fear, genuine affection an envy in this complex and fine novel.”
USA Today
“Beautifully written . . .[it] ought to enjoy the massive readership that Charles Frazier’s runaway hit, Cold Mountain did.”
Boston Globe
“Destined for a permanent spot on the...shelf of great American novels about slavery, next to Morrison...and Faulkner.”
Time Out New York
“A major achievement.”
QBR: The Black Book Review
“Complex, beautifully written, and breathtaking...the book will knock the wind out of you with the depth of its compassion.”
(starred) - Booklist
"A profoundly beautiful and insightful look at American slavery and human nature."
“This...magical novel will touch you in a profound way.”
Peter Matthiessen
“A strong, intricate, daring book by a writer of deep compassion and uncommon gifts.”
(4-Starred Critic's Choice) - People Magazine
"This...magical novel will touch you in a profound way."
Time Magazine
"A masterpiece that deserves a place in the American literary canon."

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.97(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Known World LP

Chapter One

Liaison. The Warmth of Family.

Stormy Weather.

The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins. The young ones, his son among them, had been sent out of the fields an hour or so before the adults, to prepare the late supper and, if there was time enough, to play in the few minutes of sun that were left. When he, Moses, finally freed himself of the ancient and brittle harness that connected him to the oldest mule his master owned, all that was left of the sun was a five-inch-long memory of red orange laid out in still waves across the horizon between two mountains on the left and one on the right. He had been in the fields for all of fourteen hours. He paused before leaving the fields as the evening quiet wrapped itself about him. The mule quivered, wanting home and rest. Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and ate it with no more thought than if it were a spot of cornbread. He worked the dirt around in his mouth and swallowed, leaning his head back and opening his eyes in time to see the strip of sun fade to dark blue and then to nothing. He was the only man in the realm, slave or free, who ate dirt, but while the bondage women, particularly the pregnant ones, ate it for some incomprehensible need, for that something that ash cakes and apples and fatback did not give their bodies, he ate it not only to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field, but because the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life.

This was July, and July dirt tasted even more like sweetened metal than the dirt of June or May. Something in the growing crops unleashed a metallic life that only began to dissipate in mid-August, and by harvest time that life would be gone altogether, replaced by a sour moldiness he associated with the coming of fall and winter, the end of a relationship he had begun with the first taste of dirt back in March, before the first hard spring rain. Now, with the sun gone and no moon and the darkness having taken a nice hold of him, he walked to the end of the row, holding the mule by the tail. In the clearing he dropped the tail and moved around the mule toward the barn.

The mule followed him, and after he had prepared the animal for the night and came out, Moses smelled the coming of rain. He breathed deeply, feeling it surge through him. Believing he was alone, he smiled. He knelt down to be closer to the earth and breathed deeply some more. Finally, when the effect began to dwindle, he stood and turned away, for the third time that week, from the path that led to the narrow lane of the quarters with its people and his own cabin, his woman and his boy. His wife knew enough now not to wait for him to come and eat with them. On a night with the moon he could see some of the smoke rising from the world that was the lane -- home and food and rest and what passed in many cabins for the life of family. He turned his head slightly to the right and made out what he thought was the sound of playing children, but when he turned his head back, he could hear far more clearly the last bird of the day as it evening-chirped in the small forest far off to the left.

He went straight ahead, to the farthest edge of the cornfields to a patch of woods that had yielded nothing of value since the day his master bought it from a white man who had gone broke and returned to Ireland. "I did well over there," that man lied to his people back in Ireland, his dying wife standing hunched over beside him, "but I longed for all of you and for the wealth of my homeland." The patch of woods of no more than three acres did yield some soft, blue grass that no animal would touch and many trees that no one could identify. Just before Moses stepped into the woods, the rain began, and as he walked on the rain became heavier. Well into the forest the rain came in torrents through the trees and the mighty summer leaves and after a bit Moses stopped and held out his hands and collected water that he washed over his face. Then he undressed down to his nakedness and lay down. To keep the rain out of his nose, he rolled up his shirt and placed it under his head so that it tilted just enough for the rain to flow down about his face. When he was an old man and rheumatism chained up his body, he would look back and blame the chains on evenings such as these, and on nights when he lost himself completely and fell asleep and didn't come to until morning, covered with dew.

The ground was almost soaked. The leaves seemed to soften the hard rain as it fell and it hit his body and face with no more power than the gentle tapping of fingers. He opened his mouth; it was rare for him and the rain to meet up like this. His eyes had remained open, and after taking in all that he could without turning his head, he took up his thing and did it. When he was done, after a few strokes, he closed his eyes, turned on his side and dozed. After a half hour or so the rain stopped abruptly ...

The Known World LP. Copyright © by Edward P. Jones. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Peter Matthiessen
“A strong, intricate, daring book by a writer of deep compassion and uncommon gifts.”

Meet the Author

Edward P. Jones, the New York Times bestselling author, has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, for fiction, the National Book Critics Circle award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Lannan Literary Award for The Known World; he also received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. His first collection of stories, Lost in the City, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was short listed for the National Book Award. His second collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award. He has been an instructor of fiction writing at a range of universities, including Princeton. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Brief Biography

Washington, D.C.
Date of Birth:
October 5, 1950
Place of Birth:
Washington, D.C.
B.A., College of the Holy Cross, 1972; M.F.A., University of Virginia, 1981

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The Known World 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 150 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is about slavery and it is about freedom. There is a character, Alice, who we are told was 'kicked in the head by a mule' when she was younger. She chanted nonsense. She danced in the woods alone at night. People of the county thought she was crazy but, in the end, it turns out that Alice was not as crazy as people thought. The book tells of how people are sometimes able to escape the small worlds that hold them captive, a lesson for all of us as we all, at one time or another, have attempted to escape a small world of some kind, either a physical or mental prison that has confined us.
llovelylady More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be not only thought provoking but compelling. This book was not an easy read but very well written. I felt empathy for the characters but you are left wondering how did certain events change their lives for ever. I will definitely be reading other books by this author.
regina77004 More than 1 year ago
The Known World follows the family of a black slave owner and their associates. This subject has always fascinated me since briefly touching on this in college. Apparently there was a black slave owner in southeast Texas. I have heard mixed reviews on the writing style. Personally I enjoyed both the subject and story. Jones does seem to write in past, present, and future concurrently, which can be confusing. However, I found that it gave instant insight into the characters and motives without revealing the storyline too early. I felt the culture of the South and various races were well represented. I definitely recommend this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
V. Shipley It is said that you should never judge a book by its cover, but when just glancing at the cover of The Known World, a person can't help but be interested. From the cover, it is obvious the book is about slavery, but one could never guess how twisted the subject of slavery can get. The Known World is a story about slavery, not just the regular American slavery. The internal struggle of the book is really about the concept of free blacks owning slaves. Jones really plays with this theme through out the entire novel. He makes it seem as if he is unbiased on the subject throughout the book but his tone is otherwise. An atrocity occurs in everyone's life that owns a slave. The main theme of the book is anyone who participates in slavery is polluted by it and their concepts of justice and humanity become tainted. The strange but yet awesome thing about the novel is that all of the characters are connected through a single character, Henry Townsend. Henry is a freed black, who was once a slave, which owns slaves. We are introduced to him in the beginning by learning about his death. He is not the only one. In the beginning Jones states, "In 1855 in Manchester Country, Virginia, there were 34 free black families. and eight of those free families owned slaves." Henry was a boot maker and was a slave for William Robbins. Robbins develops a fatherly bond with Henry and is reluctant to let him go. However, he remains close with him through out the entire novel. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading. History buffs would be especially interested because Jones gives you another side to a long complicated story. I had never even thought about blacks owning other slaves prior to the Civil war. This book will broaden any reader's horizons, as long as they are friendly.
JHBNJ More than 1 year ago
but I had the hardest time following this one I just gave up. The names alone had my head spinning. I keep saying I am going to try again but I just cant. My sister in law finished it and liked it but she wrote all the names of the characters on a piece of paper to follow with. Too much work for me to read a book and do that.............
Guest More than 1 year ago
Okay I know this book is long. I also know there isn't much action in this book either. With that being said this book made me think about the atrocities of slavery and the evil side of the human being. What Mr.Jones has created would not be considered exciting but what this book lacks in action it makes up for and surpesses in depth of characters and setting. Unless you really allow yourself to believe in the story than the many characters in this book won't matter and you will than miss out on some beautiful story telling. Mr. Jones takes a little fragment of history and manages to create his own world and his own masterpeice.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want something with substance and beautifully written, this is the book. The author writes with great imagery and I found myself fully engulfed in it. Not for those who are looking for something 'light'. If you want to read something good, this is it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really liked Edward P. Jones' The Known World. I really didn't have a favorite character because the novel goes back and forth in time--the point being i got to know each charaster, bit by heartbreaking bit. I loved the way the novel brought so many stories together under the stronghold of slavery. There is an old slave named Stamford who chases around young girls. Moses the overseer satisfies himself by self-gratification in his spare time. (Yes, a story like this can be hilarious.)But yet there are paradoxes: Henry Townsend ,who the novel revolves around, is a black slave owner: John Skiffington is a sheriff that won't own slaves--well his cousin gave him a slave but he treats her as a daughter--but he enforces the slavery laws. There are people who act like they're white but they are not: Oden, the indian patroller and Fern, the English teacher. But there were chracters i wanted to get to know further--Augustus and Mildred Townsend, Henry's parents. Well to be honest I wanted to get to know everybody even further and didn't want to leave them alone at that last sentence.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Much has already been said about the basic plot of this book, so I'd like to address the non-linear writing style...imagine yourself as a leaf tumbling down a stream, sometimes hurtling forward, yet frequently caught in little swirling eddies along the edges. If you relax and 'go with the flow' rather than expecting this book to read as you would wish, you will find it to be an astounding and seductive experience on several levels. The viewpoint of this book is equally fluid; through some magic, Jones has you seeing life through the eyes of whatever character he's currently focused upon. There are terrible, ugly, beautiful, sad, heartwarming things that happen constantly throughout this book and somehow, you are always identifying through the protagonist of the moment, whether this be a slave or a slave patroller, frightening as that might be. There is no melodrama here. Somehow, everything is just taken for granted, assumed...it is, after all, their known world. And, for a brief time, ours as well. We eventually come to take it for granted. We can look back with the smugness of time and condemn slavery and its consequential perverse social structurings. Yet a book like this makes one question our own 'known world,' the social structures and cultural practices we take for granted and assume we are powerless to change. I wonder what our descendents will find equally perverse here...probably our oil addiction which forces us to attempt to control countries half-way around the world rather than simply learning to make do with less here at home.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book! The author goes into the lives of so many characters, you get to see so many perspectives. The author draws you into thier lives at different times and then brings it all together.
MaBrownWI More than 1 year ago
I feel this is an important book, though it is not, in my opinion, particularly enticing. I found the flow of the story impeded by numerous side anecdotes and a tendency to jump from present to past and back. The well-developed characters in the book, however, could provide the basis for much good discussion beyond the obvious topic of slavery and the phenomena of freed slaves becoming slave owners themselves. Hence, I feel it would be a great book club selection.
tchrreader More than 1 year ago
I thought this book had great potential. I liked it but didn't love it. Oprah said it was the best book she has ever read?! Hummm... I thought it was an okay book. This book is about slavery and a man named Henry Townsend, a black farmer and a former slave. This story was a look at slavery from many different perspectives. I thought the book was a bit hard to follow. I didn't know that there was a family tree in the back of the book until after I read it. The family tree would have been helpful early on. I was more interested in some characters a lot more than others.
Black-Orchid More than 1 year ago
This book is an EXCELLENT pick for a book club! It raises several points for discussion... From the various perspectives regarding BLACK OWNED SLAVES to the personalities and life history of the characters, this book depicts another painful aspect of slavery worth talking about. Edward P. Jones is a FASCINATING STORYTELLER. I came to LOVE the way he shares the character's back-story. His writing style provides incredible INSIGHT into the motivations of his characters and invokes the emotion to love and hate and understand why! I must admit it was a tough read to start, but once I understood his style I was ENGROSSED to the end. I would RECOMMEND THIS BOOK to anyone looking for a thought provoking and GRIPPING novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did not like this book. I was surprised. The writing style was difficult to follow. It had important historical information, but I had trouble finishing it. It was a sad book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you read this book, you must read slowly. Lots of people & names. If read fast, you will put the book down. If read word for word it is a good book. I read fast and almost gave it up. Slowed down, finished it and enjoyed it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book, The Known World, is brilliant! The subject itself, though unsettling, is an eye opener to a critical aspect of our history. Beautifully written, Edward Jones has done an amazing job of crafting an intimate look at the lives of everyone harnessed by the economy of slavery and how each life did not escape unscathed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I do not care for this book. I agree that this book is difficult to read but well written. I felt like I needed to take side notes just to keep up with the characters. I found myself skipping chapters about the people I didn't care about to find out more about the ones that I connected with.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think i am locked out of camp please tell cedarstar as well as deputy is locked out
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awesome i feel so atupid
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
mrsmama More than 1 year ago
I rarely leave a book unfinished. As for this one, it was like trying to walk in the mud, slow and tedious. Too much to follow to be a nice read. The author jumped around from paragraph to paragraph so that it made it unenjoyable to read. I did not find any of the history interesting enough to keep me reading (and I have a degree in history). PASS