(Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award) Henry Townsend was the son of slaves in antebellum Virginia, who bought their freedom and then Henry's. But Henry remained loyal to his former master William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County—so much so that when Henry became wealthy, he began to buy his own slaves.
"So utterly original that it makes almost everything previously written about slavery seem outdated and pedestrian. It belongs on a shelf with other classics of slavery, like Toni Morrison's Beloved and William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner."—Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"On a small plantation in Manchester County, Virginia, in the 1850s, a freed black man named Henry Townsend lives with his wife and the 33 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 New Yorker
"Townsend is part of a small enclave of free blacks who own slaves, thus offering another angle on the complexities of slavery and social relations in a Virginia town just before the Civil War. His widow, Caldonia, grief-stricken and more conflicted about slavery than Henry was, fails to maintain the social order. Also caught in the miasma of slavery is Sheriff John Skiffington, an honorable man who, when presented with a slave as a marriage gift, spends the remainder of his marriage, along with his wife, dithering about how to deal with the girl and ends up treating her like a daughter. These are only a few of the deftly portrayed characters in this elegantly written novel that explores the interweaving of sex, race, and class. Jones moves back and forth in time, making the reader omniscient, knowing what will eventually befall the characters despite their best and worst efforts, their aspirations and their moral failings. This is a profoundly beautiful and insightful look at American slavery and human nature."—Booklist