The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 12 : Sunday. Barnum Kinsey in Missouri. Finding a Lost Loved One. | Summary

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Summary

On Sunday Sheriff Skiffington deduces that Moses is hiding in Mildred's house. Acting on this hunch, he and Counsel ride there to make the arrest. At Mildred's they are met with polite hostility and a rifle pointed through the front door. The sheriff demands that Mildred "surrender the property," but she tells him no. With his finger on the trigger of his rifle, he pulls the gun too quickly from its sheath—causing it to fire. The bullet strikes Mildred in the heart. Stunned, all Skiffington can think to do is to send Counsel into the house to look for Moses.

While searching the upstairs rooms, Counsel discovers five gold pieces in a dresser. He abruptly recalls all the losses he has suffered. Certain there is more gold hidden on the property, he feels justified when he pockets the money, comes downstairs, shoots Skiffington with Mildred's rifle, and drops it next to her body. A creak on the stairs makes him turn, and there is Moses with his hands held up. Counsel threatens to kill him if he tells anyone what he saw. On the road back to town, the two come upon Louis, Elias, and the patrollers Barnum Kinsey, Harvey Travis, and Oden Peoples. Counsel tells them that Mildred shot Skiffington. Figuring the chain of events started with Moses, Oden offers to cut the slave's Achilles' tendon to keep him from running away again. Barnum and Louis protest, but Counsel agrees. Moses is carried, screaming in pain, back to Caldonia's plantation.

Not long after the sheriff's murder, Barnum Kinsey takes his family to Missouri. However, he dies shortly after they cross the Mississippi River. Counsel, Harvey Travis, and Oden Peoples search the Townsend house for more gold to no avail but discover hidden compartments in the house. They don't recognize them as being "designed to hide slaves for the Underground Railroad." A legal battle erupts over what should happen to the property, causing a permanent rift between William Robbins and another wealthy slave owner, Robert Colfax. Robbins defends Caldonia's right to inherit the property, while Colfax defends Counsel's ludicrous claims to it. The rift destroys the county as citizens rush to take sides with one powerful man or the other. Eventually Manchester is "torn asunder" and swallowed up by surrounding counties.

The slave speculators Darcy and Stennis are arrested and imprisoned. Winifred Skiffington and Minerva leave Manchester County for the northern city of Philadelphia. One day Minerva slips away to live with a young black man, his parents, and two sisters. Winifred, brokenhearted, never learns where her daughter has gone or why.

Finally, a letter from Calvin to Caldonia, written on the eve of the Civil War, reveals that he is living in Washington, D.C. He has found Alice, Priscilla, and Jamie and works alongside them in a combination hotel, restaurant, and saloon. Two beautiful works of art hang in the restaurant. They map the roads of Manchester County and life on Caldonia and Henry's plantation. Using her full name, the artist has signed them "Alice Night."

Analysis

This chapter brings to a close the events of 1855, following Henry Townsend's death, and provides glimpses into the future for several key characters.

The segment Sunday points to the climax of the story, with the deaths of Mildred and Sheriff Skiffington and the capture and maiming of Moses. Elias describes Moses as being "world stupid," unable to determine North from South. No matter how he tries, Moses cannot find his way to freedom, and he is trapped in the known world of Manchester County and slavery. Skiffington, recalling Moses's limitations, figures he will be drawn to the one place he knows beyond the borders of Henry's plantation: the home of Henry's parents.

In pursuing Moses Skiffington once again demonstrates his inability to recognize the hypocrisy of enforcing laws he detests. Moses is a runaway, and the law demands he be arrested. Furthermore, Skiffington suspects he has murdered the missing slaves, though he has no proof. He bases his feeling on preconceived notions of how a guilty slave would act. Long exposure to slavery's biases has primed Skiffington to expect the worst of a slave. In his confrontation with Mildred, the corrupting effects of slavery on an essentially decent man become even more evident. His frustration heightened by the pounding pain of a toothache, Skiffington tries to intimidate Mildred into cooperating by labeling her "a nigger." It's an ugly attempt to diminish her, to rob her of her dignity and her right to resist.

Skiffington's reaction to shooting Mildred, which appears accidental, echoes Counsel's reaction to shooting his disobedient horse in Texas. After the shooting, Counsel asks, "Why is coming so hard?"—as if the animal is to blame for its death. After he shoots Mildred, Skiffington asks, "Are civility and righteousness so dear that I cannot have them?" He is blaming the victim and cannot see that his lack of civility and righteousness actually led to this killing.

Counsel's subsequent actions prove yet again he is irredeemably vile at heart. As for Moses, his hobbling ties him forever to slavery, physically and spiritually. He is no longer able to run, and all hope of freedom is gone.

The rest of the chapter winds up some loose threads. The segment Barnum Kinsey in Missouri relates the death of Kinsey after taking his family out of Virginia. Shortly after crossing into Missouri, Kinsey dies, and his son carves a long description of his father into a wooden tombstone. The tombstone will not last a year. This calls attention once again to the fragile nature of the written word. Just as Augustus's freedom vanishes when Harvey Travis eats his free paper, the memory of Barnum Kinsey will disappear when his tombstone is gone. The written word is seemingly concrete—a tangible expression of an idea. However, it is easily destroyed. The destruction of Augustus's free papers and Kinsey's tombstone seem to ask: In a world that depends so heavily on the written word, what happens to ideas when their written record is destroyed?

Winifred Skiffington's blunder when printing up her "lost loved one" poster illustrates how the written word can expose hidden scars of slavery. The poster is an earnest attempt to find her beloved Minerva. However, the afterthought at the bottom—"Will Answer To The Name Minnie"—shows a lack of sensitivity born of Winifred's 15 years of living in the South. It does not occur to her how offensive this notation is, as it harkens back to the day Minerva was "property" and given away as a gift. Erasing the years of love, the phrase makes Minerva sound like a pet who will gladly come if called correctly. In spite of Winifred's best efforts, her attempt to recapture a lasting family structure is destroyed when her choice of words unintentionally stabs an old wound.

Finally, Calvin's letter to Caldonia discloses the fates of Priscilla, Jamie, and Alice Night. It is written on April 12, 1861, the day the Confederate Army attacks Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina, beginning the Civil War. Slavery will be abolished in 1865. Alice's first work of art maps the roads to freedom out of the known worlds of Manchester County and slavery. It makes clear that Alice's nightly wanderings not only helped her to spiritually transcend her slavery but also allowed her to learn the physical path to freedom. Her second work of art remembers all who have lived and died in slavery on Henry's plantation—including Henry and Caldonia. Notably missing are Priscilla, Jamie, and Alice, who have successfully escaped and are living free.

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