Review: Burning Uncle Tom’s Cabin

By | June 5, 2014

Burning Uncle Tom's Cabin
Burning Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Carl Waters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was given this book to read for this review. But I would have read it anyway–it was enjoyable, fast-moving, and clearly written.

This book is the tale of George Harris, his wife Eliza (of ice floe fame), son Harry, and those around him in antebellum slave-owning Kentucky and the free state of Ohio under the ministrations of both slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. It is also a retelling of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s opus “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the book written by a little woman that started a great war.

The story opens as George, a slave of the Harrises of Kentucky, aims to better himself in life in the station where he finds himself loaned out to work for another man in a mill. He is smart, motivated, and a careful and loving husband and father. Unfortunately, his wife and son are owned by the Shelbys, but fortunately, they are good-hearted people (albeit slave-owners!) who give the Harrises space to live as man and wife for small moments here and there when he can get away from his duties. The Shelbys also own the eponymous Uncle Tom of the story’s title.

The exigencies of the time being what they were, the Shelbys fall upon hard times and must sell three slaves desired by the slaver Haley: Tom, Eliza, and Henry.

Meanwhile, George is recalled by Harris to return from the mill, where he is able to use his native wits and quick mind, to the Harris plantation where he is treated as a mule to be beaten and broken until he submits to his fate as a slave.

The combination of George’s awful treatment by the Harrises and the selling of Eliza, Tom, and Henry to the slaver tip George and his wife and son to escape their separate paths. There are many wild moments in the story where George is threatened with discovery or capture, and times when Eliza and Henry are close to exhaustion and failure. They are pursued relentlessly through Kentucky and Ohio as they all attempt to make the way to Canada. They are helped and hindered by friends and betrayers, and while the story moves along crisply, there are moments of great relief and humor to break the tension. I especially loved the moment when George said to a traveling companion “So you speak horse?”

The author has done his homework, capturing the circumstances of life in the United States in 1851 in both the free and slave states. The people are fleshed out, with more to do than simply advance the story, and the story itself is plotted deftly. George is, by design, the hero of the story, and not Uncle Tom, and George comes across as a good, honest man who is tempted to terrible actions to avenge not just his captivity but the attempted capture of his wife and son. This book is the first of a promised series, and it is clear that there will need to be further books to tell us if — well, I don’t want to give away the ending of this book.

The writing style is clear and lucid, and shows the skill of someone who writes well naturally. It is an easy read, and suited for an afternoon or two in the sun, but as it shows signs of careful research, it would also be useful as an additional resource for classes about the pre-Civil War America.

I did not give this the full five stars only because I felt that, well-written as it is, it seems almost too kind to certain people. I would have liked to see a little more real danger and damage, but given the audience for the book, the presentation of the book might simply be to encourage young adults to read it with the approval of their parents.

I look forward to reading the promised sequels.

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