When Toni Morrison began her research for "Beloved," she discovered a trove of ghastly instruments. She knew, of course, that slaves were routinely whipped, starved, raped, and hanged, but the existence of specially forged tools was a surprise: metal bits forced down the throat, iron masks locked across the face, spiked collars clasped around the neck. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel reintroduced those horrors into the national memory and did much to demonstrate that the cruelties of slavery extended far beyond hard labor and physical deprivation.
"The Known World," by Edward Jones, reclaims another peculiarity of American slavery and in the process illustrates yet again that we can't under- estimate its perverse contortions of the human spirit. Bizarre as it sounds, in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina, a small number of free blacks owned their own plantations - and their own slaves. It was a precarious arrangement, to be sure. Blacks who were freed or managed to buy their own freedom had little incentive to tarry in the South. The laws governing their status and their right to hold property were ambiguous and easy for any white person to shred.
Jones uses this fragile situation as the setting for a novel about a group of black and white Virginians who tried - sometimes nobly, often viciously - to maintain their world in the face of inevitable collapse. To the extent that Morrison spun a surreal tale of American slavery into mythic proportions, Jones has carved a companion series of stark anecdotes into national legends. In a measured voice that never rises to reflect the agonies and absurdities he describes, he moves back and forth through decades and across state lines, assembling an apparently random collection of brief scenes that gradually fuse into a stunning portrait of moral confusion.
The story revolves around Henry Townsend, a black man who, with the indulgence of his former owner, managed to buy his own farm and his own slaves - eventually 29 adults and a collection of children. Henry's parents, who labored tirelessly to free him as a child, are horrified by his participation in the flesh market, but Henry is ambitious, and, what's more, he learned from his master that "once you own even one, you will never be alone." As a protection against loneliness and a way to wealth, Henry can't imagine anything more successful, and he's convinced he can be "a better master than any white man he had ever known." Indeed, he attains that dubious goal, creating a plantation with forced labor that's largely free of physical beatings, but it's an insidious gentility that only camouflages the humiliations of Southern slavery.
Nevertheless, his untimely death frightens most of his slaves, who know just how delicate their relative comfort is. Only the brooding overseer, Moses, the first slave Henry ever bought, sees his master's demise as an opportunity - not for freedom, but for taking his place. Indeed, what interests Jones most in this complex novel is the way slavery distorts judgment, not just of those who oppress, but of those who are oppressed.
Henry's widow, Caldonia, quickly decides against freeing "her legacy," choosing instead to maintain the plantation in the spirit of Henry's gentle example. "Her husband had done the best he could," she thinks, "and on Judgment Day his slaves would stand before God and testify to that fact." Occasionally, a child is worked to death or a pregnant woman labors in the field till she miscarries, but Caldonia sheds sincere tears, comforts the parents, and considers whether she should buy insurance against further losses of her property.
As a single woman with a large business to run, she's encouraged by a collection of family and friends, other free blacks, some of whom own their own slaves, too. One of the most troubling is Fern, Caldonia's prim teacher of literature and etiquette. Together, they keep the irony of their position well buried, while socializing in a kind of racial terrarium maintained by William Robbins, the county's wealthiest white farmer. Estranged from his own wife but protected by his political power, he loves a black woman in town and openly adores his two mulatto children. The Townsend plantation with its little coterie of free slave-owning blacks gives his favorites a place to play and refine themselves.
In one of several shifts to the late 19th century, a Canadian historian interviews Fern, Caldonia's teacher, about those days on the plantation. "All of us do only what the law and God tell us we can do," she says without any hint of guilt or remorse. "We owned slaves. It was what was done, and so that is what we did." Jones uses that same tone of historical distance throughout, a tone that amplifies the grotesque mingling of affection and cruelty that infected these people, black and white.
In the center of this moral kaleidoscope stands the sheriff, John Skiffington, an earnest Christian, dedicated to the objective application of law and convinced that "the law always cares" for everyone equally. It's a doomed endeavor, of course, but as Caldonia's plantation begins to collapse, Skiffington fails to realize that the legal system he's sworn to uphold is not objective and that he cannot remain clean within it.
The scrambled collection of events and characters makes this a difficult story to enter, but that structure eventually accounts for much of the novel's evocative power. Jones has a kind of biblical style that suggests whole lives in a few stark details from a perspective that's alternately microscopic and telescopic. It's a technique that resists our efforts to keep these events in some unrecoverable past. The troubling implications of his story leach in through hairline cracks all over the twin shells of antebellum nostalgia and Northern piety. Every time Caldonia cheerfully reminds her friends, "We are all worthy of one another," the legacy of slavery sounds more complex and unresolved.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.