Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Rating: 4 stars

Category: Historical fiction

Synopsis: Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a powerfully moving story that follows the lives of African-American slaves. What makes this novel so poignant is that when written it did not fall into its current category of ‘historical fiction’. It was simply ‘fiction’. In her research, Stowe did not delve deep into encyclopaedias and trawl old newspaper articles; she asked her friends. A fervent abolitionist, she wrote the novel to bring the individual agonies of slavery accusingly into the public eye. Its mixture of compassion and almost bitter anger is so compelling that it was credited by Abraham Lincoln as a major catalyst of the civil war.

Review: I started reading this book on a beach in Tenerife. Nevertheless, it is most definitely not a light holiday read. The suffering endured by Uncle Tom and his friends is harrowing. I felt pounded by the images of children torn from their mothers, desperate pleading, merciless traders, broken bodies and quiet loss of hope. My own idyllic setting as I lounged on sunbeds and wandered drowsily along promenades seemed to magnify a sense of guilt I felt, that these horrors are just an indistinct awareness from year 9 history lessons, barely hovering on the edges of my consciousness. Books like this are a jackhammer into a privileged life.

The novel’s plot is engaging and moves smoothly between the storylines of each different character. In stories like this I often find myself less enthralled with one sub-plot than the others, quickly skipping over it to return to my favourites. However, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin this was not the case. I became equally invested in all of the characters and delighted in the return of each to the forefront of my imagination.

In my opinion, Stowe is at her best when she allows the humanity of her characters to show through their thoughts and dialogue. I recoiled at their pain, thrilled with their triumphs and skimmed through their adventures with my heart in my mouth. The empathy drawn from me by the individuals portrayed seemed to me far more poignant than the various moral commentaries inserted by the author. In particular, the archaic stereotypes she uses can be rather jarring to the modern reader.

Our world has undergone drastic change since this novel was penned. The generalisations based on race made by the author are uncomfortable reading, while the emphasis placed on religion seems far less relevant in today’s increasingly secular society. Despite this, readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin still undergo an emotional whirlwind and find the book stays with them a long time after the heart-rending final chapters are finished. This is likely to be what has made Stowe’s unforgettable novel withstand the test of time.

Favourite quote: ‘Of course, in a novel, people’s hearts break, and they die, and that is the end of it; and in a story this is very convenient. But in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us.’

Read if: you want to try and understand what cannot be understood – man’s cruelty to man – in a powerful novel that has changed the course of history.

For an interesting insight into the history behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin, have a look at this link on History Net.

Image courtesy of Goodreads

Have you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? If so, what did you think? Let us know in the comments!

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