Sunday, July 20, 2014

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Um. So. I don't even really know where to start with this book. tl;dr - Should absolutely, positively be required reading for anyone who calls themselves an American. Don't be intimidated by it because it's old; it's easy to read and follow linguistically, and the story itself is riveting.

I think I first learned about this book in AP US History in 11th grade & the blurb in our textbook was basically like, "This woman wrote this book depicting the realities of slavery & it kind of went viral & started the Civil War," and then we got to read about a bunch of white people shooting at each other & getting their limbs sawed off for the next 5 chapters.

Honestly, I think would have been better off just reading this book.

The story begins with a certain Mr. Shelby reluctantly selling three of his most highly valued slaves (young beautiful "quadroon" Eliza, her charismatic six-year-old son Harry, & the eponymous Uncle Tom) & follows their stories as they attempt to escape to Canada (in the case of Eliza & Harry) or are sold into various situations with different masters of a variety of philosophies & temperaments. The story is built out of real life stories collected by the author either first- or second-hand, and they are woven together in such a way as to address a variety of the legal, political, ethical, and philosophical arguments of the day surrounding the issue of slavery and abolition and, like I said, is riveting in terms of keeping you interested and invested in what happens next and incredibly moving from the whole "What is freedom / personhood?" perspective.

It's one thing to read a novel about slavery written in the present day or recent past, but there is a whole other weight that comes with reading something that was written and published before the Civil War, while the practice was still legal and common place. If you can get through this book without becoming utterly enraged and heartbroken about the things that went on in this country, for hundreds of years, under the full protection of the law, to say nothing of what the fall out was (and continues to be), I kind of feel like you shouldn't get to call yourself an American.

I spent a good 18 years hating the school subject of history and completely unable to see the point of studying it; maybe if I'd been assigned fewer textbooks and more primary works like this one, I would have understood how critical it is to study and make sense of the past (particularly the parts that make us the most uncomfortable). Highly, highly recommend. (Preferably *before* the age of 33.)

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