Thursday, June 23, 2011

GOLDEN OLDIES: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I love the Back-to-the-Classics challenge because it’s making me read books that have been hanging out at the back of my TBR list forever, just waiting for some sort of deadline to move them to the front. The latest example is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’ve tried reading this before, but never got past the first few pages before being distracted by something else. I had it in mind that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an important book, but not necessarily a good book. Going in, I anticipated something long, old-fashioned, and preachy. So I figured an airplane ride to Europe was the perfect setting for tackling it. Since we had a mandate to travel light, I downloaded it onto my new Nook. I was all set.

Although overall, the novel was the anti-slavery treatise I knew it would be, it was very different from what I expected. Uncle Tom’s Cabin follows the trials and tribulations of several slaves. The first to be introduced are living not on a plantation in the deep south but in a city in Kentucky. The first owners we meet are not cruel; in fact, the mistress is a God-fearing woman whose sympathies lie with the slaves. But the master is in economic distress and, to his dismay, he must sell one of his most devoted, trustworthy slaves, Uncle Tom. Not only that, but the man who wants to buy Tom also wants to buy an entertaining young child named Harry. This sets the wheels in motion. Eliza is Harry’s mother. She overhears the plans to sell him and therefore has no choice but to escape. (Her husband, a brilliant, hard-working young man who is owned elsewhere in the city had already decided to run away from his harsh master.) They meet up and begin a harrowing flight to Canada.

Uncle Tom, meanwhile, chooses a different path. He understands that if he is not sold the remaining slaves will suffer the consequences. Tom is a deeply religious man who is certain that God will watch over him. He goes with the slave trader.

For awhile, things go well for Tom. On the boat south, he meets a young girl named Eva. Eva is Christian charity personified. Eva asks her father to buy Tom. He takes up his new life with Eva’s family in New Orleans. Although he misses his own wife and children, life with Eva’s family is not a particular hardship. But there is constant uncertainty in the life of a slave. Eva’s father is a cynic and a reluctant slave owner. And Eva is a sickly child. When she dies, the future becomes even more precarious. However, her father understands Eva’s wishes and Tom is promised his freedom. But then, Eva’s father unexpectedly dies. The slaves are sold off.

Tom falls into the hands of Simon Legree. Legree is a cruel and bitter man. He hates Tom because Tom is good. Legree grows more and more determined to break his new slave, no matter the consequences, but Tom’s spirit will not be broken.

Throughout the story, Stowe demonstrates the cruelty and indignity of slavery. Even when masters are "kind," slavery is cruel. The writing is preachy and some of the events are melodramatic; however, the story is nevertheless captivating. I’ve summarized only the barest bones of the plot. Other characters swarm on and off the pages, demonstrating all the various ways in which humans are flawed, but also showing their strengths. I found myself drawn in to the story. I wanted to know how all the loose ends would be tied up, even for the minor characters.

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of vague praise of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I realized I’d formed an opinion of the book without ever reading it. Now I can better understand why the book had such a tremendous impact on the antebellum world. And I have to revise my own opinion. It’s an important book AND a good book.


  1. This book has also been lingering on my TBR list - but I hesitated for the same reasons you did. I'm glad to know that it's a good book - it will move forward on my list. Thanks for the review.

  2. I'm reading/listening to this now and I too had always been intimidated by it but I have found myself completely drawn into the story!

  3. I read half of this book a few years ago. I was enjoying it, but found it reasonably slow going and had to move on to read something else. I must get to finishing it some time. It is an important book, and a good one.