Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly" (Book Review)

One of the most dramatic and powerful novels I ever read was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly. Not because I wanted to read it but because it was a requirement in my history class to read and understand the book that lead to the world's first modern war, the American Civil War [Yesterday, April 12, 2011 was the 150th Anniversary of the opening shots of the Battle of Fort Sumter].

“So, this is the little lady who caused the Great War”

Those were the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln when he meet American novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her book (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) talks about the lives of African-American slaves disrupted by the evil realities of slave trade at that time. The main protagonist of the story of course was Uncle Tom, a loyal Christian slave of the Shelby household in Kentucky. His life story (despite being a fictional character) received a lot of criticism from the pioneers of the African American civil rights early in the 20th Century. Of course, Uncle Tom's tragic story should inspire readers regardless of the color of their skins.

Aside from Uncle Tom's story, there is also the love story of George and Eliza Harris (with their son Harry), both own by very different slave owners. George by a cruel and heartless plantation owner while Eliza by the kind Shelby family who were forced to sell Uncle Tom, Eliza, and little Harry due to family debts. Then there is the Quaker Settlement with one of their settlers (John Van Trompe) reminding you of the infamous (and murderous) John Brown and his sons of the Bleeding Kansas and the pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry.
“If there’s anybody comes, why here I’m ready for him: and I’ve got seven sons, each six foot high, and they’ll be ready for ‘em. Give our respects to ‘em, tell ‘em it’s no matter how soon they call, - make no difference to us” ~ John Van Trompe in the John Brown-esque way.
There was also the heroic Senator John Bird who has an argument with his wife concerning the Fugitive Slave Act (prohibiting Northerners from aiding fugitive slaves and compulsory requiring Free States to assist the return of the fugitive slaves to their respective owners) and how at the end of the day, helped Eliza and Harry escaped to the Quaker Settlement.

There was the story of the angelic Evangeline St. Clare (Little Eva): the adorable young daughter of Augustine and Marie St. Clare. Her character gave the readers some light moments and relief in the story but tragically end that will break your heart.

Then there were the constant debates of Augustine St. Clare and his northern cousin, Miss Ophelia about the institution of slavery. Should slaves be freed and faced the racist prejudices of the North? Or remain slaves where majority of the Southern owners (personified by Arthur Shelby) provide food and shelter?

There are other characters that I would like to talk about but that would be too much of a spoiler. Anyway, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is more than just romanticism. It is more than just an anti-slavery abolitionist book. It is also feminists, political, and a Christian novel. 

This review was also posted at Goodreads.

Here is a sample:

Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly
Conversation between fugitive slave George Harris and Mr. Wilson (found in Chapter 11)
"Why, George, this state of mind is awful; it's getting really desperate George. I'm concerned. Going to break the laws of your country!"

"My country again! Mr. Wilson, you have a country; but what country have I, or any one like me, born of slave mothers? What laws are there for us? We don't make them, -- we don't consent to them, -- we have nothing to do with them; all they do for us is to crush us, and keep us down. Haven't I heard your Fourth-of-July speeches? Don't you tell us all, once a year, that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed? Can't a fellow think, that hears such things? Can't he put this and that together, and see what it comes to?"

Mr. Wilson's mind was one of those that may not unaptly be represented by a bale of cotton, -- downy, soft, benevolently fuzzy and confused. He really pitied George with all his heart, and had a sort of dim and cloudy perception of the style of feeling that agitated him; but he deemed it his duty to go on talking good to him, with infinite pertinacity.

"George, this is bad. I must tell you, you know, as a friend, you'd better not be meddling with such notions; they are bad, George, very bad, for boys in your condition, -- very;" and Mr. Wilson sat down to a table, and began nervously chewing the handle of his umbrella.

"See here, now, Mr. Wilson," said George, coming up and sitting himself determinately down in front of him; "look at me, now. Don't I sit before you, every way, just as much a man as you are? Look at my face, -- look at my hands, -- look at my body," and the young man drew himself up proudly; "why am I not a man, as much as anybody? Well, Mr. Wilson, hear what I can tell you. I had a father -- one of your Kentucky gentlemen -- who didn't think enough of me to keep me from being sold with his dogs and horses, to satisfy the estate, when he died. I saw my mother put up at sheriff's sale, with her seven children. They were sold before her eyes, one by one, all to different masters; and I was the youngest. She came and kneeled down before old Mas'r, and begged him to buy her with me, that she might have at least one child with her; and he kicked her away with his heavy boot. I saw him do it; and the last that I heard was her moans and screams, when I was tied to his horse's neck, to be carried off to his place."

"Well, then?"

"My master traded with one of the men, and bought my oldest sister. She was a pious, good girl, -- a member of the Baptist church, -- and as handsome as my poor mother had been. She was well brought up, and had good manners. At first, I was glad she was bought, for I had one friend near me. I was soon sorry for it. Sir, I have stood at the door and heard her whipped, when it seemed as if every blow cut into my naked heart, and I couldn't do anything to help her; and she was whipped, sir, for wanting to live a decent Christian life, such as your laws give no slave girl a right to live; and at last I saw her chained with a trader's gang, to be sent to market in Orleans, -- sent there for nothing else but that, -- and that's the last I know of her. Well, I grew up, -- long years and years, -- no father, no mother, no sister, not a living soul that cared for me more than a dog; nothing but whipping, scolding, starving. Why, sir, I've been so hungry that I have been glad to take the bones they threw to their dogs; and yet, when I was a little fellow, and laid awake whole nights and cried, it wasn't the hunger, it wasn't the whipping, I cried for. No, sir, it was for my mother and my sisters, -- it was because I hadn't a friend to love me on earth. I never knew what peace or comfort was. I never had a kind word spoken to me till I came to work in your factory. Mr. Wilson, you treated me well; you encouraged me to do well, and to learn to read and write, and to try to make something of myself; and God knows how grateful I am for it. Then, sir, I found my wife; you've seen her, -- you know how beautiful she is. When I found she loved me, when I married her, I scarcely could believe I was alive, I was so happy; and, sir, she is as good as she is beautiful. But now what? Why, now comes my master, takes me right away from my work, and my friends, and all I like, and grinds me down into the very dirt! And why? Because, he says, I forgot who I was; he says, to teach me that I am only a nigger! After all, and last of all, he comes between me and my wife, and says I shall give her up, and live with another woman. And all this your laws give him power to do, in spite of God or man. Mr. Wilson, look at it! There isn't one of all these things, that have broken the hearts of my mother and my sister, and my wife and myself, but your laws allow, and give every man power to do, in Kentucky, and none can say to him nay! Do you call these the laws of my country? Sir, I haven't any country, anymore than I have any father. But I'm going to have one. I don't want anything of your country, except to be let alone, -- to go peaceably out of it; and when I get to Canada, where the laws will own me and protect me, that shall be my country, and its laws I will obey. But if any man tries to stop me, let him take care, for I am desperate. I'll fight for my liberty to the last breath I breathe. You say your fathers did it; if it was right for them, it is right for me!"
If you don't have the hardcopy of the Uncle Tom's Cabin, then you can read the on-line version of the novel: Uncle Tom's Cabin (e-novel)

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