Powerful. Compelling. Unsettling. Instructional. These and other descriptors depict my thoughts and feelings on pretty much every page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although I’d heard of Stowe’s well-known work for most of my life, I didn’t read it until this past spring. Another confession: not only did I not read this work of historical fiction until recently, it took six or seven weeks to finish it. It was simply too painful to digest more than twenty or twenty-five pages per night.
I wanted to read the novel mainly because of curiosity. What was all the fuss about? What made it a classic book? Was Uncle Tom really like the character he’s usually portrayed to be…an overly respectful and servile slave? Was the book accurate? Just how true to life could a book of about slavery written by a white woman of relative privilege be? I’d heard that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote much of the book in the midst of raising seven children. Who could do that today??? And rumor has it that she did most of the writing while sitting at her kitchen table. No Starbucks, writing retreats, or precious solitude for this incredible writer.
The action of the book traces the passage of Tom through the hands of three owners—Shelby, St. Clare, and Legree. Shelby and his wife cared about their slaves and yet seem to perceive of them as children who needed guidance. He felt no compunction when the need arose to sell Tom, thus separating him from Chloe and his children. St. Clare was a kind, affable Southern gentleman who died before finalizing an agreement to free Tom. But the third owner, Simon Legree, was a harsh, hateful, vile man who ultimately caused Tom’s death.
Although Tom’s life, including his whereabouts, acquaintances, activities, and influence, is central to the narrative, there are subplots as well. I got confused a few times and had to backtrack to remember who certain characters were, like Eliza and Topsy and George. Stowe even managed to include the helpful involvement of a Quaker community. I was amazed at how she wove the stories and plots into one continuous chronicle. How did she know so much about the human heart and psyche?
I had a love/hate relationship with this book. I loved its instructional nature, Stowe’s descriptions of settings and people, and the discourse between characters that raised ethnical issues. Without spelling out how self-centered and vapid Marie, St. Clare’s wife, was, the reader could easily discern her shallowness from Marie’s speech and her interactions with the slaves. How, I wondered, could such a person give birth to the child Eva? From conversations between St. Clare and his relative, Miss Ophelia, the reader gets drawn into questions of morality and decency.
About those descriptions of settings, after reading the one of the road leading to Legree’s plantation, I stopped reading for the night, too wimpy to read further. Stowe prefaced the chapter with to Psalm 74:20, “The dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.” Word for word, here’s Stowe’s description:
“It was a wild, forsaken road, now winding through dreary pine barrens, where the wind whispered mournfully, and now over log causeways, through long cypress swamps, the doleful trees rising out of the slimy, spongy ground, hung with long wreaths of funeral black moss, while ever and anon the loathsome form of the mocassin snake might be seen sliding among broken stumps and shattered branches that lay here and there, rotting in the water.”
I will never forget Tom and the race, time, and culture he represents. Though Tom died, others, including Cassy and the children with whom she was reunited, lived. We still have Simon Legrees among us in 2018. Thankfully, we also have loving souls like Eva, thoughtful ones like St. Clare, and helpful ones like the Quakers who aided in the escape of slaves.