Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852
I knew this was a very important book; apocryphally the book written by the little lady who started a big war. I knew it was a response to the (dreadful) Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and that it sparked increased abolitionist feeling in the North. I knew about Eliza crossing the frozen river (The King and I) and about the evil Simon Legree. But there were still some surprises.
Firstly this is a melodramatic novel featuring very cardboard characters who represent specific types of the period. For example there is the evil slave owner (Legree); there is an angelic little girl (who made me think of Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop which I've never read but I've seen an adaptation); there is a slave owner who is conflicted about the system of slavery; there are Northern anti-slavery people who have slavery brought to their doorstep. Nothing that happens is particularly surprising and none of the characters have any depth or growth.
Secondly I just realized a plot might be helpful. Uncle Tom is a slave on a farm where he is about to be sold because his owner is profligate. A little boy named Harry is also about to be sold away from his mother Eliza. She is terrified about this prospect and so runs away, accumulating family and escaping to Canada along the way. Uncle Tom however submits to his fate and is first bought by an ambivalent slave owner who ends up dying before freeing him, leaving him to be sold to the vile Legree which leads to his death.
Some of the major parts of this book are evangelical fervor; pretty much every page has Christianity references and it can be overwhelming because even modern Christian novels I've read are not so steeped in my opinion. The morality of women and their ability to influence their husbands from their proper domestic sphere also occurs. Stowe's solution for post-abolition seems to be colonization of Liberia using ex-slaves as missionaries to spread Christianity which seems impractical to me and obviously did not end up happening. It is also interesting to look at her racial attitudes which are awful in our times but were actually among the most liberal for the 1850s! I read this for class and my professor called it "romantic racism" where Africans are recognized to have a soul but aren't as good as Anglo-Saxons.
It is also interesting how the use of Uncle Tom has changed. Now he is considered a subservient simpleminded slave but here he is actually very responsible and devoted to his Christian faith. When Legree demands Uncle Tom betray his slaves who have escaped, he refuses and is protected by his faith so that he dies secure in the knowledge of his betrayal. Actually the representation of Uncle Tom as bowing and scraping comes from ministrel shows where Stowe's story was twisted to actually promote slavery.
Overall: I'm very pleased that I've read this very important book now. While there are some crazy coincidences a la Dickens, they come together rather well. The only bad thing was the flowery language which meant I usually could only read one chapter at a time with lots of breaks. So I will rate this 4/5 and recommend it.