Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Shelby family owns a plantation in Kentucky, and within their plantation system, they own slaves.  Yet these slaves see the Shelby's as loving masters.  Having financial difficulties causes Mr. Shelby to sell two of his slaves, Tom, known as Uncle Tom by many, and young Harry, son of Eliza, a house slave.  When Eliza hears of the plan, she takes Harry and escapes, in the hopes of making it to Canada.  She is pursued by the slave trader who purchased her; eventually she is reunited with her husband and the family makes their way to freedom.  Meanwhile, Tom is taken away and sold to the St. Clare family.  The St. Clares are good to him, particularly the young daughter, Eva.  After a series of family tragedies, Tom is sold by Mrs. St. Clare, and becomes the property of Simon Legree, a heartless and cruel master.

This book is a difficult read, for various reasons.  Written and published in the 1850's, the books subject matter and language both seem so foreign to me.  The main theme of the book is the evils of slavery, and the potential redemption of the sin of slavery through Christianity.  The book is credited with bring the issue of slavery into the national political spotlight.  Part of the evil of slavery, as shown in this book, is the concept of ownership over another human being.  The idea that one man can own another, and that the Master-slave relationship trumps all others.  I cannot even fathom the idea of ones child or spouse not actually being their own, but instead being merely the property of the master.  Women lose their children, men lose their wives, and they are expected to just accept it, because they are slaves.  

The masters portrayed in the book are varied; some treat the slaves well and eventually free them, while others beat their slaves mercilessly.  It makes the subject matter complex, in that some slaves do not appear dissatisfied with their bonds.  Similarly, one of the minor characters in the book, Aunt Ophelia, is an abolitionist, yet she appears to me as one of the most racist characters in the book.  While she finds slavery to be evil, she also finds the black race to be distasteful.  I find the complexity of this character, along with the complexity of the good Master-willing slave relationship, to be compelling, and find that it adds significant depth to the story.

The language, I will admit, is a bit difficult.  Some of the slave dialect was quite difficult for me to decipher, yet I found it to seem more real that if the slaves had spoken grammatically perfect English.  The realistic dialog helped the characters come to life.  The language and social morals are so significantly different from our own modern ones that I can see how this book might be intimidating or off putting to many readers, but I urge them to stay with it, and try to find the deeper message in the story.

While this book is certainly not without its flaws, I have to respect it, and recommend it, if for no other reason that the important role it played in American history.  We may not be proud of this portion of our history, but we have to acknowledge it in order to grow as a nation.

This book is from my personal library.

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