Harriet Beecher Stowe has got some balls. She managed to piss off the South and get the North into protest mode with her anti-slavery novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and when she met Abe Lincoln, he allegedly greeted her with, “So you’re the little lady who started this great [American Civil] war!” I can’t think of a book I’ve read that has so tangibly influenced an entire country. Some writers get cult followings; Harriet Beecher Stowe got people off their rears.
Almost a series of short stories, the book follows several slaves as they are bought and sold, separated from their families, and attempt to escape. Stowe points out what a whole country somehow overlooked for years: People are not property. While the specifics of Stowe’s abolitionist message are no longer relevant in post-slavery times, the general message of the inherent value of life is universally applicable, and the book’s significance in today’s world lies in reminding readers of this.
Back in the day, this book was a complete mindfuck. Quite apart from her main agenda, which was to protest a law that prohibited the assistance of runaway slaves, she wrote some pretty awesome lady characters. Most of the people pointing out injustice and calling for change are the women, while the men shrug and say, “It sucks, but what can you do?” Unfortunately, since this is 1850, all the gals can do is appeal to their senator husbands (who usually pat them on the heads for being morally superior little darlings and tell them to let the men handle it).
As a writer, Stowe isn’t infallible. Reading the book feels like listening to the author narrating a play, except she’s reading all the stage directions, too. When she switches the focus from one character to another, she invariably writes something like, “We’re going to leave this guy here and go see what this family is doing.” On top of being unnecessary, this habit of hers keeps the reader at arm’s length. The characters undergo cruelty and heartbreak, but Stowe already has her readers looking at them from afar, so it’s hard to feel deeply for them. She also manages to mention Jesus on every page. I’m not even going to elaborate; the woman just could not stop proselytizing and it nearly drove me batty.
In the end, I only gripe about the book to avoid hero-worship. Harriet Beecher Stowe saw something wrong with the world around her and wrote to change it. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ isn’t a perfect book, but it’s a perfect example of what fiction can do.