Sunday, June 11, 2017

Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Genre: Classic literature
Date Published: May 1852 (this annotated edition: September 2006)
Publisher: John P. Jewett
# Of Pages: 472 pgs (my edition)


Synopsis: Although the American anti-slavery movement had existed at least as long as the nation itself, Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) galvanized public opinion as nothing had before. The book sold 10,000 copies in its first week and 300,000 in its first year. Its vivid dramatization of slavery's cruelties so aroused readers that is said that Abraham Lincoln told Stowe her work had been a catalyst for the Civil War.

Today the novel is often labeled condescending, but its characters still have the power to move our hearts. Stowe's Tom is actually American literature's first black hero, a man who suffers for refusing to obey his white oppressors. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a living, relevant story, passionate in its vivid depiction of the cruelest forms of injustice—and the courage it takes to fight against them.

My Rating:
.....For completely breaking my heart

My Thoughts:
Man, this book was rough! Now I remember why I didn't finish this when I was young.

This book took so long for me to finish--not because it was a dull read, but because the story was so heartbreaking. I ended up switching to the annotated edition so that the footnotes could give me a bit of a break from the tragic lives these slaves had to endure.

Harriet Beecher Stowe is brilliant when it comes to creating an emotional scene. You can't help but feel for the characters as their lives are torn apart. The parts that really touched me the most were the story of Cassy and her life, along with the scene of Emmeline being sold to Simon Legree. Stowe wrote these chapters with women readers in mind, and it worked. When I finished the chapter where Cassy told Tom her past, I had to put the book down and try not to cry. And poor Emmeline! The trauma of being examined and sold like that! What's worse is the knowledge that these things are based off of true stories. It amazes me that people actually condoned these actions and saw them as normal.

But here's the really brilliant part: Stowe is able to show how and why Southerners saw slavery as normal. She not only describes the horrors of slavery, she also creates different characters with different views on slavery. She has benevolent slaveowners alongside cruel owners. She has some people who see blacks as childlike, some who view them as equals, some who hardly see them as people, and some who view them as people but still retain prejudices against them. Stowe is able to depict each and every opinion of that time period within this book, and truly demonstrates just how tangled the issue of slavery is. When I was a kid, I couldn't understand why the South couldn't just agree to free all the slaves, why a civil war had to start before slavery could finally end. Now I can see their point of view: I don't agree with it, but I understand it.

Stowe doesn't just stop with criticizing slaveowners, though. She also criticizes the North for their part in slavery: they may be free states, but, thanks to their prejudices, they aren't doing anything to help end slavery.

Overall, this is a book everyone must read. Once. Once is enough. I don't think I'll be able to read this a second time. Maybe years down the road when my future children are assigned to read this in school I'll read it again with them. But I won't willingly read this again. It's a very good story. Really too good, because the stories are so emotionally disturbing. I can't bring myself to repeat the experience. It will forever haunt me.

If you haven't read this yet, you need to read it. It's famous for good reason. Just be prepared. You're not just reading classic literature, you're reading a horror story. A horror story about our country's dark history. I strongly recommend the annotated version; it helps with harder sections.

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