Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) Part Two

Several characters in this book are worth mentioning.  Uncle Tom, of course.  He's the hero.  I know, I know, we've all been told he is not the hero, that he was weak.  We've been told the heros of the book are the ones that ran away, that escaped to Canada.

Well, I'm here to tell you that is not true.  Anyone willing to die for their faith and for the protection of others is a hero.  Uncle Tom was a hero.

But I can't discount the part Eliza and George played in this book.  That was exciting and kept me on the edge of my seat.  Early in the story, she took her son and ran away.  One of the most dramatic moments of the book was when Eliza picked up her son and ran across the Ohio River, jumping from ice patch to ice patch.  To be honest, I really thought she was going to die.  I thought that Harriet Beecher Stowe planned to kill her off as an example of the brutality of slavery.  But she didn't.  I'm so glad!  We were all in her corner, rooting for her!  Go Eliza!!

I know it sounds odd to say that, but I have to think just how many people were rooting for her in 1852 when the book as published.  What about slave-owners?  If they read this book, did they hope Eliza and her son would make it?  Or were they hoping she would be captured or killed, and her son returned to slavery.  I've dwelt on that question.  It's true, people in 1852 faced slavery as a real issue.  And when this book was released, there were thousands upon thousands of people who owned slaves.  And when they read this, I guess some of them were actually cheering for the slave hunters to catch that evil run-away slave.

It makes me think of someone reading Lord of the Rings and hoping that the orcs manage to kill Frodo before he reaches Mt. Doom.  I know it's crazy, but come on!  It has to be true!  Some people must have been rooting for the heros to get killed in this book.

And what about the border states?  What about the residents of Ohio?  The book brought up the interesting fact that in Ohio it was illegal to help a runaway slave.  I guess people were willing to help them which is why they passed the law.  So, were residents of non-slaves states rooting for Eliza?  I just don't know.  It's an interesting question.  The book does a good job of showing a variety of people from different walks of life giving their opinions on slavery.  The politician who helped her escape, he argued for that law, and then broke it when it became personal - when Eliza showed up on his doorstep.

As I said previously, it makes you want to rally the troops and give speeches against slavery!  How can we as a people condone this institution?  But then once again I realize we don't condone it and slavery was abolished like forever ago.  So the boiling point of the book is wasted on us.

But on with the review.  This book has serious continuity issues.  When Eliza and the others are cornered in a bunch of rocks, and one guy comes up to kill them, he gets shot.  Then the other slave hunters run away.  Then it jumps back to the thread with Uncle Tom.  Then it's months later!  I mean, gimme a break.  Is that any way to run a novel?  Next we see of Eliza, they are talking in past tense about what had happened after the shootout.

Plus, we've got a seriously bad slave hunter here.  He has no conscious.  He doesn't mind killing slaves, or separating children from their mother.  Yet in just a few sentences it says something about him being reformed?  I think that was just lazy writing.

But on the other hand, Stowe did a brilliant job with some of the characters.  Near the top of the list would have to be Topsy.  She is a girl, only 8 or 9 years old, but a slave girl with no parents that she ever remembered.  What makes Topsy so important is she is the product of a slave system.  She's just a kid, but she lies and steals and laughs about it, but cries and says she's sorry if you catch her.  I think Stowe's purpose in this (and other characters) was to show how that institution creates people with no dignity and no responsibility.  These people do what they can to survive.  They feel no moral obligation to do right because they feel no moral obligation towards their owners.  I guess a good analogy would be if you were held prisoner and you knew you hadn't committed a crime, would you feel loyalty to the people keeping you there?  Of course not.  You would try to get all you can out of it, and make plans to escape.

One of the most tragic stories is old Prue.  Her baby is sick but she's not allowed to take care of it.  Her mistress told her to stay with her and ignore her baby.  So the baby died.  She could hear it crying in the night but wasn't allowed to care for it.  The mistress was glad because the baby took too much attention from her.

That attitude surely existed.  It's hard to imagine in our civilized time that people like that existed, but I know they did.  The old saying, power corrupts.  I think it's the same for people who are raised to believe a certain way.  Eventually, a person can come to believe they have more rights than others, or that slaves have no rights at all, or that slaves aren't really people, that they don't matter.  The saddest part is that it's probably in our nature.  Only a strong moral society keeps that attitude at bay.

Eva was the good "angel" of the book.  Of course she had to die.  She was too good to live, I suppose, in a book like this.  When she died, it was like sucking the goodness and life out of that household.  She was the moral compass.  Her death was the downfall of reason and the onset of darkness and hopelessness.  It gave the book a feeling of fragility.  The very lives of so many people depended on the kindness of others, a kindness that was not in any way required, and could at any time be taken away.  And then when her father died it reinforced that point.  With no laws to protect them, a few decent people were all that stood between the slaves and very bad things - children taken from parents, people worked to death, or killed outright.

It’s hard to downplay the central role Christianity played in this book.  Christianity was the redeeming action of some of the main characters, little Eva and Uncle Tom come to mind.  That Tom would rather die than do anything to jeopardize his faith or do what he knows to be wrong makes a powerful statement.  In fact, discussions of religion play out in a central theme of the book – the justification of, or condemnation of, slavery.  I found this aspect one of the most interesting.  Some characters stated that “the Bible” said slavery was right.  And one of the main characters made a telling statement when he said that if the price of cotton were to fall so much that owning slaves became impractical, they would suddenly discover that the Bible actually mean exactly the opposite, that slavery was bad.  The idea that people twist religious teachings to suit their own needs, and use religion in general and Christianity in particular with the Bible as its basis as a way to justify slavery while others said that no true Christian could practice slavery, was a keen description of one of the struggles occurring at that time throughout western civilization.  In fact, we see that even today with various religions being used by people to suit their needs and push various agendas.

It's interesting this book takes such a serious tone, while Huckleberry Finn was also anti-slavery but took a much more satirical tone.  I like to compare the two, but Huck Finn was written after slavery was abolished so it didn't need to carry such an urgent plea.  It could be more retrospective.  The purpose of this book was to wake people up to the truth about slavery.  It served its purpose, and perhaps today it can serve to remind us of our own inherent natures and what we have to overcome.

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