Sunday, September 15, 2002

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
1852, Penguin/Signet Classics, 496 pages, softcover (many editions available)

The story is about slavery in America. It follows the lives of two slaves in detail, Eliza and Uncle Tom, and introduces us to a great many more slaves and masters and their stories. The two belong to the same master in Kentucky. When the master falls on hard times (from his own inability to manage his estate) he ends up making a deal to sell these two - despite the fact that both of them are rather dear to him and his family. Getting wind of this Eliza decides to run for safety with her son while Uncle Tom allows himself to be taken away from his wife and young children. Eliza risks her life to save her child - running across the ice floes of a partially frozen Ohio river to escape - then finds her way along an underground network. (I won't tell you how her story comes out.) Uncle Tom is sold and resold. He is steadfast in his faith throughout - though not unchanging. Moreover, he affects those who he meets along the way.

This book is written in a very foreign style. - at least to the modern reader. Chronologically Mrs. Stowe's style fits somewhere between that of the crafters of the Constitution and that of Mark Twain. But it is not so easy to put it into any other category. Her own narration is a bit archaic, overtly Christian, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes patronizing, and yet very broad minded. She calls you "gentle reader". She says "now don't you think that is fair?" when she expects you to come to the opposite conclusion. And yet she sees clearly through all the haze of the issue - i.e. the "shades of grey" everyone loves to talk about when they can't bear to say right vs. wrong. And she does more - she presents us with characters who take various positions on the slavery issue. Not just "it's right" and "it's wrong" - but a wide variety of views. She allows them ample voice and reason to discourse their whole argument; she does not make them straw men; she does not mitigate or twist their ideas; she lays out the best cases for and against - and from several different angles. In the midst of this she demonstrates the effects on the PEOPLE who are subjected to the system - those who are the masters as well as those who are the slaves. It is incredibly revealing to have the whole gamut - the entire conversation - all in one accessable story. And it is incredibly convincing!!! Which is why, as legend has it, Abe Lincoln, when introduced to her for the first time declared, "So you're the little lady responsible for this big war."

Age level: High School Freshman +/- a year. Kleenex required.

Reviewed by John Van Hecke (7-29-04)
Available from Adoremus Books and Our Father's House,

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