Monday, February 27, 2006

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Okay, here goes. (By the way, I'm feeling like my "academic muscles" are way flabbier than yours, Lis. :-)
While reading The Autobiography of Malcom X, I was inspired to read Uncle Tom's Cabin because in his autobiography, Malcom X made countless references to the "Uncle Toms" of society. I had a vague notion as to what he was referring, but was curious to know the story. (I'll give a little background): For most of his adult life, except for the last few years, Malcolm X viewed most pro-integration African-Americans as an "Uncle Tom," (particularly the ones who befriended White men) seeing them as far too forgiving, too submissive and not taking enough control over their own lives. This was interesting to me since I had understood Uncle Tom to be a role-model, or in the least the most respected character in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The story begins at a plantation in Kentucky where the slave-owners are described as kind and gentle to all - taking part in slave trade only because it is the way of society, not because they are racist. So, Harriet Beacher Stowe begins by painting a picture of the most "ideal" slavery conditions: Uncle Tom is the so-called "manager" of the plantation, he shares a cabin with his wife, Chloe, and two small boys and has a well-established working relationship with the plantation owner, Mr. Shelby. Another woman, Eliza, is Mrs. Shelby's personal assistant and stays in the house along with her own son. Eliza soon finds out that Mr. Shelby is in serious debt and that the only way out of it is to sell his most valued servant - Uncle Tom - as well as Eliza's son, (since young children could often prove to be of high value, if purchased early). Upon learning the news, Eliza informs Tom and decides to escape with her child in the night, in hopes of making the journey to Canada. Tom, being the obedient and loyal slave that he is, decides to stay and take the hand that he is dealt, no matter where it leads him.

The remainder of the story goes back and forth between Eliza and Uncle Tom, following each of them on their journeys, with Tom letting others control his fate and Eliza trying with everything in her to control her own. I should add, though, that Uncle Tom is a devout Christian and puts all his faith in the saving grace of Christ, which is why he allows himself to be taken from place to place - always with the hope that the Lord will provide in His own time.

Through their journeys the reader sees everything from the kindest to the cruelest slave-owners, the best possible living conditions to the most horrific and de-humanizing conditions, and the most "spoiled" to the most "savage" African-American slaves. As Eliza and her son are hunted, and Tom is towed from one slaveholder to the next, the reader gets a solid picture of the way slavery permeated all of society - in the both the south and the north. From the plantation-owners to the slave-traffickers, to the auction leaders, to the restaurant-owners and to the underground railroad workers, slavery was ever-present, and horrifyingly normalized.

There are times in the story when, as a reader who understands the time in which this was written, you wonder how forgiving Harriet Beecher Stowe will be in the end, or if she will be forgiving at all. In other words, this was written before the Civil War, and in order to get it published, it seems logical that she would have had to be forgiving of White society - at least to some degree. So I found myself wondering how dark it would become in the end. (I will leave that for you who haven't yet read it to discover, but I thought it an interesting consideration: How honest will the author be?)

Uncle Tom's Cabin seems to be one of those "must reads" if you want to be an educated person in society. :-) It is a story that opens eyes to a history we cannot ignore, or forget about. As well, it inevitably turns the reader's thoughts to the present to consider the level of improvement we humans have made in this area: Has racism in general decreased? (We know that globally it hasn't, but what about in your own cities?) ...But not just that. How are the hierarchies of society that make a few powerful and most marginalized similar to slavery? How do we view each other, particularly in the competitive society in which we live?

If any of my lovely sisters want to discuss this more we can, but otherwise, it's food for thought (a lot of thought). I highly recommend this book. It's a bit hard to get into the language, but once you're in, the characters come alive and your emotions are invested in their stories. Harriett Beecher Stowe definitely created a masterpiece.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Mayor of Casterbridge

I thought I was going to hate this book--a dark, Victorian tragedy with a yucky main character--ugh! But I think I actually liked it. Michael Henchard turned out to be surprisingly sympathetic, a tragic figure in the Greek and Shakespearean sense, a great man with a "tragic flaw." In spite of the unlikely coincidences that sometimes govern the plot, the book's twists and turns kept me turning pages, and the rich characterization more than makes up for the somewhat contrived plot. As Phillip Lopate says in the introduction, "One measure of the psychological subtlety of The Mayor of Casterbridge is that Henchard keeps coming to a wiser self-awareness, and then losing it again, the way we all do." Likewise, "what makes the book so much more interesting is the way the narrative keeps slipping the noose of inevitability." In other words, the reader has plenty of chances to say, "Oh, it could go another way! Henchard, you could choose this better path." On top of that, he's basically a good guy. You get to see him do lots of decent things, like supporting a widow without anyone but she and her son knowing, or being to-the-penny honest at his bankruptcy. You like him. So, yes it's a Victorian tragedy, a pretty good one. Be sure to get the Barnes and Noble Classics version because it has a much more engaging and informative introduction than others I've seen. (to avoid spoilers, read the intro after the book) P.S. The book's almost worth reading for it's utterly unexpected first chapter.

Cry the Beloved Country

I have a few extra minutes here to attempt to do justice to this beautiful novel. I'd love to just turn the job over to Lis, for a truly lucid and thorough presentation. But I guess you'll have to settle for me. :)

First, just go ahead and add this to my top . . . 12. I might even bump something for this book. The most striking thing about Cry the Beloved Country is the way beauty and suffering move along side-by-side, both sinking deep into your heart through Paton's lyrical poetry.

Set just before the official institutionalization of apartheid in South Africa, it's a story about a rural priest trying to rescue his family from innercity Johannesburg. His attempt to reconstruct his family, as well as his rural community, mirrors the country's attempt to repair itself, and Paton--without succombing to stereotypes or sentimentality--shows that, when God touches men, redemption and reconstruction are possible. As one priest puts it, "I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power or money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it."

It takes a great deal of pain and then forgiveness to get to that point. In fact, great suffering seems to be the one thing that produces enough vision for change. White and black, both having endured and forgiven, do finally come together with hope for themselves and their community. The ending may be among the most moving I've read. To see such largeness of spirit, such goodness and peace, rise from men we know to be faltering humans is soul expanding.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Peace Like a River

Before I start a new book, I "preview" it like I taught my English 115 students to do. I always read the first paragraph or two, a litmus test which tells me whether I want to read the book at all. I read the back cover, I browse the internet, and I read the blurbs pulled from professional reviews. Among the many glowing reviews for Peace Like a River, there is this:

"Peace Like a River serves as a reminder of why we read fiction to
begin with: to commune with a vividly, lovingly rendered world, to
lose ourselves in story and language and beauty, to savor what we don't
want to end yet know must."
I was going to try to come up with my own reasons for reading, but I couldn't top that, which is why Andrew Roe of the San Francisco Chronicle makes the cover of best-selling novels and while I post to an anonymous little blog that no one reads. :-) I would just add that I read to meet and know fascinating characters.

At any rate, Mr. Roe got it right—Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger, has all this and more. First, character: Reuben Land, an 11-year-old boy who suffers from asthma, is the book's narrator, looking back through the lenses of memory and adulthood. His younger sister Swede is a virtuoso in heroic verse on Old Western outlawry. She is so precocious that at first I wondered if the author had ever met an 8 year old, but Swede's family is crazy about her, and I soon found her entirely lovable. Their father, Jeremiah, a promising medical student-turned janitor, has an unusually conversational relationship with the Lord. It's not just that he's devoutly religious, or even particularly eccentric. He holds dialogue with God that no one else is privy to (including the reader), at one point even going toe-to-toe in what appears to be an actual physical struggle. (He doesn't win.) Oh, and did I mention he works miracles? There are more characters of course, but these are the ones we get to know best. This family of "tender-hearted stoics" (another reviewer's phrasing that I couldn't improve on) is drawn with such care and affection that they seem real, and wonderful. You want to bring them home and warm them up and feed them and, above all, listen to their story.

World: The novel is set in the northern Great Plains during the harshest of winters, a place that is not hard to imagine for someone blessed to live in the temperate Pacific Northwest only because of the author's skill in describing winds so severe they create blizzards when it's not snowing, and temperatures so cold that 19° is considered "brisk." It's a great backdrop for the story, and the perfect contrast to a wondrous glimpse of the afterlife that comes late in the book.

Story: Reuben's older brother Davy has been charged with murder, having shot and killed two boys who broke into their home with intent to do harm. When the trial takes a turn for the worse, Davy breaks out of jail and goes on the lam. His family follows him into the Badlands of North Dakota, a hostile world of superlative cold and also of fire and brimstone. They meet both comfort and tragedy along the way, and the story's conclusion shows the redemptive power of love and faith and family.

Language: Leif Enger has an exceptional talent with language, never mind the ripping-good story. The tone is conversational, and the word choice is always spot-on. The language is surprisingly literary, employing such wisdom and clarity that sometimes I found myself reading a sentence over and over to let it roll around and sink in. He even makes up his own words sometimes, like "grayscape" and "smouch" which I think means "to swipe," as in, "I smouched some gingersnaps." I wanted to find the perfect passage to give you a sample, but there are so many from which to choose. This will have to do:

Her hair was roped back in a French braid from which it was very winningly coming loose, and she held before her a picnic basket with a clasped lid. For heartening sights nothing beats a well-packed picnic basket. One so full it creaks. One carried by a lady you would walk on tacks for. Does all this make her sound beautiful to you? Because she was—oh, yes. Though she hadn't seemed so to me a week before, when she turned and faced us I was confused at her beauty and could only scratch and look down at my shoetops, as the dumbfounded have done through the centuries. Swede was wordless too, though later in an epic fervor she would render into verse Roxanna's moment of transfiguration. I like the phrase, which hasn't been thrown around that much since the High Renaissance, but truly I suppose that moment had been gaining on us, secretly, like a new piece of music played while you sleep. One day you hear it—a strange song, yet one you know by heart.

I chose that paragraph because it's a good example of the author's personable voice (he addresses the reader as though he's telling you the story personally), and it also has a few great examples of his just-right phrasing—e.g. the part about the picnic basket and also the scratching and looking down at shoetops.

And that leaves beauty. There is beauty in the language, in the place and time the language evokes, in character and in theme. It's a wise and thoughtful and faith-inducing book.

My apologies to those who will tire of me raving about every book I read, but I don't usually read a book unless I'm quite convinced I will like it. And I really liked this one. And it did remind me why I read fiction. It's a miracle of a book which I heartily recommend to all my darling sisters.

A final note from my internet research: The name of the book comes from Isaiah 48:18 and 66:12. There is also a hymn of the same name:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Good Earth

This book is a strong contender for my Top 10 list. It is so moving and so beautifully told. Set in pre-revolutionary China, The Good Earth is the story of an honest, humble farmer, Wang Lung, and his stoic, selfless wife O-lan. The novel opens on the couple’s marriage day and follows their lives through the births of children and grandchildren, years of prosperity and years of famine, flood or drought. It follows their rise from poverty to wealth, through the whole cycle of life to their final return to the land.

A quote from Pearl Buck: "The basic discovery about any people is the discovery of the relationship between its men and its women."

I'll tell you upfront, you will find in this book rampant misogyny. It caught my attention from Chapter 1. Women are little more than a commodity in this culture. They are bought and sold and even killed if the burden of their femaleness seems too great. Female babies are considered worthless and burdensome, a misfortune and a bad omen. They are literally called slaves from the moment they are born, and they have no claim to a place in the family. When a family needs money, they sell a girl—into prostitution if she is pretty, into slavery if she is not. There is no question of a daughter being educated alongside her brothers—her options are slavery, prostitution, or marriage (and sometimes they are all the same thing). It’s all very maddening, but the author in no way condones it—Pearl Buck was a feminist. In this book she shows us life in rural China for what it was and lets it speak for itself.

The most important theme in The Good Earth is probably not the one I got so hung up on; as the title indicates, it’s the earth. To Wang Lung, land is more valuable than anything because it is always constant—it can never be taken from him, unlike other material possessions. It is the source of life and the foundation on which his family stands. It is also a source of inner peace. It heals. As life's complications weigh on Wang Lung, he returns again and again to the earth, to his land and to the hard physical labor it requires, and his mind clears and his soul finds its equilibrium. The simple-and-true message of the book is that one’s life should be centered on something good and honest and purposeful.

I loved reading this book. I wanted to start over again after I turned the last page. (Isn't that a great feeling? But I can never justify reading the same book twice while so many wait expectantly on the nightstand!) Anyway... It was pure pleasure to read Pearl Buck's lovely, uncomplicated prose, and the story is timeless.

For those who like to read a book with credentials, Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and in 1938 she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.