The Idiot Learns to Read #8: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved, – but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!

I can’t believe I read this book so fast.  I read the first nine chapters inside of a few hours and blazed through the last 10 chapters just now here at work.  I couldn’t put it down, it was so riveting.

A lot of people have heard of the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I’m sure they’ve heard the phrase “Uncle Tom,” but I bet very few people nowadays have read the book outside of a school assignment.  I’m ashamed to say that I was among those people until about an hour ago.

If you don’t know, this story is about slavery and its ill effects, Christianity and duty to it, as well as the strength of the human spirit to endure even those abominable of situations.  As I just mentioned, I read through the first nine chapters so quickly because the writing sucked me in the story.  I’m not one to be teary-eyed or overly emotional, but I couldn’t help but feel depressed after those first nine chapters.

Of course, we’ve all had our history lessons and we know about slavery, where it came from and where it went.  We know about all the evils slave owners committed.  We know the devastating effects slavery had on Africans tricked into a free boat ride through the nineteenth century.  I’m sure we’ve all read a few books and seen a few movies, as I have, but I don’t think any of them affected me as much as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  I can’t precisely say what it is about this book that made me sad, I just know that it was well-written, thought-provoking and heart-wrenching.

It is about Tom, of course, and the people that came into contact with me.  Tom is a slave, but more importantly Tom is a Christian who never, ever, ever allows his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to be shaken.  It didn’t matter what anybody did to him, no matter what crimes and miseries committed against him, he never lost his faith in the Lord.  His first owners were kind and reasonable people, if you can call slaveowners such.  The Missus didn’t like slavery but women in those times only had fractional more freedom than slaves, so her opinion didn’t count.  The Master greatly appreciated the work that Tom did but in the end, he owed a lot of debt and was forced to sell Tom.  Tom was so good a slave that he would fetch a high price. The family promised that if they ever had the money they would do their best to buy Tom back.  There is decency in this family and you know that if they had the means they would keep their word.  There is no hidden agenda in this particular family.

The worst thing for slaves in the northern-most part of the south was to be sold “down the river” to a plantation, and that is precisely where Tom went.  An angel, so to speak, intervened.  A young girl on the same boat as Tom saw him for his good Christian sold and persuaded her father to buy him.  Tom’s new master was also kindly, even if he was a little negligent and thoughtless.  He treated Tom well and Tom was always there for him in his darkest hour.   When New Master’s daughter dies, Tom is a fount of strength and Christian wisdom for him.  Tom cares about everybody’s soul and he was most concerned over his new master’s soul.  His new master always meant to repay Tom for his kindness and wisdom, but New Master is a little lazy and never thinks of anything until the last minute.   He wanted to give Tom his freedom, but he never got around to it and ended up getting killed in a bar fight.

New Master’s wife was a shiftless bitch and when everybody reminded her that her husband meant to give Tom his freedom, she complained that she would need the money she could get from selling him.  Tom and the rest of the servants ended up at a slave warehouse to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.  Tom ends up in the hands of a disgusting, cruel plantation owner who beats him mercilessly.  This new owner doesn’t like Tom because Tom never gets mad.  Tom hangs on to his faith in the Lord.  Tom does what he’s told and doesn’t complain.  The new master wants Tom to get mad like the rest of the slaves so he can have an excuse to beat him, but since Tom doesn’t behave like everyone else this just makes the slaveowner even more upset.  So he ends up beating Tom just because he’s mad that Tom is not like everyone else.

He tries his damnedest to get Tom to recant his faith in the Lord but Tom is unshakeable.  Even though Tom realises that he will never see his family again, he just won’t let go.  If I had been Tom, I would have been a lunatic.  I would have killed the plantation owner.  I would have run away.  I would have killed myself.

In addition to Tom’s story, there is also the story of George.  George is another slave but he’s extremely smart and well-read.  He makes a lot of money for his master working in a factory and he’s so smart that he invents some machine to cut down on the workload.  The master is jealous of George’s intelligence.  He thinks George invented this machine to get out of working.  Even though George makes a lot of money for him, the master decides that George should work in the field instead. George can’t take it anymore, so he runs off to Canada with his wife and son.

There are also all the stories of slaves who were beaten to death by insensitive, merciless masters.  And the stories of white people who find it amusing that some people think that the slaves were actual human beings with feelings and emotions.  You hear from slaveowners and the people whose business it is to buy, sell and track slaves up and down the river.  They talk about how “upset” the mothers get when their sons and daughters are sold away from them.  They think it’s funny that someone would be so attached to their offspring.  They talk about how to sweet talk the wives into not being so upset that their husbands got sold.

And then there are all the slaveowners who think they are actually doing good to their slaves.  Sure, they are properly clothing them, feeding them and all that, but that’s not enough.  They say, “Don’t I do right by them?”  But then treat them like they are less than a person.

It was just so depressing, but there was some happiness.  George and his family got away to Canada, and then he went to be educated in France.  Eventually they all went back to Africa.  Tom’s first family freed all of their slaves.  And all the poor souls that you come across in this book eventually do end up in a better place, even if it had to be heaven.

They say this book was a flashpoint for the Civil War.  At the time it was written there were already large groups of Christian abolitionists.  They felt you couldn’t really be a Christian and own another person at the same time.  More and more northern whites (and some southerners) assisted runaway slaves to Canada and other places of freedom.  It was a volatile time because the law was not favourable.

Whether you are white or black, if you call yourself any kind of human being, you should read this book.  Out of everything I have read so far, this one has been the best, even if it was the saddest.

Now, I think I’ll go on to something a little more light-hearted.  On to The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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