Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Martyr

 

"Deem not the just by Heaven forgot!

Though life its common gifts deny, - 

Though, with a crushed and bleeding heart,

And spurned of man, he goes to die!

For God hath marked each sorrowing day,

And numbered every bitter tear,

And heaven's long years of bliss shall pay

For all his children suffer here."

 

 

 

Poem written by William Cullen Bryant

Featured in Uncle Tom's Cabin

 

 

 

"The longest way must have its close, - the gloomiest night will wear on to a morning. An eternal, inexorable lapse of moments is ever hurrying the day of the evil to an eternal night, and the night of the just to an eternal day. We have walked with our humble friend thus far in the valley of slavery; first through flowery fields of ease and indulgence, then through heart-breaking separations from all that man holds dear. Again, we have waited with him in a sunny island, where generous hands concealed his chains with flowers; and, lastly, we have followed him when the last ray of earthly hope went out in night, and seen how, in the blackness of earthly darkness, the firmament of the unseen has blazed with stars of new and significant lustre. The morning-star now stands over the tops of the mountains, and gales and breezes, not of earth, show that the gates of day are unclosing."  ~ Uncle Tom's Cabin

 

 

I was never required to read this book in school but it's always been in my TBR pile. Wouldn't be right to honestly call myself a history junkie and not check this out at some point, right? I was always under the impression that this was the story of a number of different slaves on just one plantation but it actually alternates between the stories of Uncle Tom, considered a spiritual leader among fellow slaves on Shelby Plantation, and Eliza, also from Shelby Plantation. The story starts with both of them under the same owners but Uncle Tom and Eliza's son are sold to cover a debt of Mr. Shelby's. Eliza takes her son and flees under the cover of darkness. The story then splits between the different places Tom goes and Eliza's goal to get to Canada to start a new life with her son and husband (owned by a different plantation owner but also fleeing). There's more action and tension in the story than I ever imagined. Eliza always seems a breath away from capture and Tom seems to make the best out of wherever he's sent. There are a few parts where the story gets a little confusing because one of the men trying to hunt down Eliza and her son is also named Tom, though not the same person.

 

Stowe 2 

 

 

 

I found Eliza's story pretty powerful in the way she has to put herself out there and rely on the trust and safety of strangers who could very easily turn her and her son in. There is one especially gripping scene {based on a real life story of a slave woman who did the same} where she, in trying to escape her pursuers, jumps into the Ohio River in the dead of winter (with her son in her arms no less!) and onto floating ice pieces until she reached the opposite side of the banks where she is pulled in by Mr. Symmes, who takes her and her son to a nearby Quaker colony. The Quakers protect Eliza as far as their non-violent beliefs allow. So Eliza, with the help of Quakers, finds at least a semi-protected passage to Canada. There is also another incident where Eliza finds help with Mary Bird, even though Mary's husband John, a senator, reveals to her that he just voted for a law prohibiting the feeding or housing of runaway slaves. Mary admonishes her husband by saying that such an attitude is un-Christian, thus convincing her husband to offer his help as well. The reader can't help but root for Eliza and her determination to protect her son! So many times in the story she's risking her life to keep him from a life of brutal slavery. 

 

 

 

The Flight Of Eliza by Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot

 

Meanwhile, Tom is bought by Augustine St. Clare, a kind and friendly man whose daughter Evangeline (Eva) takes a liking to Tom after meeting him on a boat trip back to their home. Tom was in the slave hold with a number of other slaves and met gentle-hearted Eva as she brought food and kind words to the slaves. It was on this boat where the reader finds a pretty disgusting scene of twisted logic, but a line of thinking that wasn't uncommon for the period. A minister on the boat recites "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be", then claims that this is the Bible stating right there that God is cool with slavery, that it's God's wish! Now just as you start to feel your blood boil at yet another example of the Bible being used to justify the actions of dark hearts, check out the reply by another passenger on the same boat:

 

A tall, slender young man,with a face expressive of great feeling and intelligence, here broke in and repeated the words, 'All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye evenso unto them.' "I suppose," he added,"that is Scripture as much as 'cursed be Canaan'."

:-D preeetty aweesooome!! Well, Tom goes on to work at the St. Clare residence for a time. Marie St. Clare, Augustine's wife, bugged me to no end. Emotionally distant mother to Eva, full time hypochondriac who never stops complaining but also never stops talking about how she never complains, bickering monkey on her husband's back... yep, real winner there. At one point, Marie even exclaims "No one knows what I endure!" Remind you of anyone??

 

 

 

The batty woman won't even let go of her pity-party enough to acknowledge when Eva becomes severely ill & starts to fade away. Nope, even then her problems are still worse than everyone's. Ugh! To make it even worse, the reader finds that Augustine, nice as he seems to be, probably a cool guy to have a drink with, seems to have misplaced his backbone somewhere. He never agrees with his wife but always lets her have her way. He disagrees with slavery but claims freeing his slaves requires too much paperwork and his slaves are just too settled now and a handful of other excuses. His hemming and hawing over the matter end up sending Tom into a tragic situation in the final part of his (Tom's) story, being sent to work for the sinister Simon Legree.

 

Stowe does go a little long with some of the more preachy bits of this story and sprinkles of her own slight racist leanings, but the story itself, that is, the stories of Tom & Eliza, make for one educating read in basic humanity (or lack thereof). Before reading this book, I had never heard of whipping houses, places where apparently if a slave owner thought a slave needed disciplining but didn't want to do the whipping themselves, they sent the slave with a note over to the public whipping house where some unsavory, unscrupulous character did the job for them. Well, that tarnished bit of American History was certainly left out of all the classes I took! Not only that, but Stowe's description of slaves gathered together just before a slave auction sounds nearly identical to cattle being prepped for a cattle auction:

 

The dealers in the human article make scrupulous and systematic efforts to promote noisy mirth among them, as a means of drowning reflection, and rendering them insensible to their condition. The whole object of the training to which the negro is put, from the time he is sold in the northern market till he arrives south, is systematically directed towards making him callous, unthinking, and brutal. The slave-dealer collects his gang in Virginia or Kentucky, and drives them to some convenient, healthy place, - often a watering place, - to be fattened. Here they are fed full daily; and, because some incline to pine, a fiddle is kept commonly going among them, and they are made to dance daily; and he who refuses to be merry - in whose soul thoughts of wife, or child, or home, are too strong for him to be gay - is marked as sullen and dangerous, and subjected to all the evils which the ill will of an utterly irresponsible and hardened man can inflict upon him. Briskness, alertness, and cheerfulness of appearance, especially before observers, are constantly enforced upon them, both by the hope of thereby getting a good master, and the fear of all that the driver may bring upon them if they prove unsalable.

 


So readers, if you're doing a Classics Challenge with your book club, or just reading more classics for yourself, I'd definitely recommend you put this one on the list. It looks slightly daunting at first but there is a powerful story needing to be read here.