I get it, this classic book was a bestseller that (some say) helped to hasten the Civil War by bringing forward discussions about the terrible practice of slavery. But despite its “classic” label, it’s in terrible need of an editor, and presents a long slog for anyone who feels obligated to pore over every word carefully. Originally released in serial installments, it has a clunky structure that yanks you all over the place, but the worst sin is its bloated inclusion of so much description and talk of the white world of slavery. We’re dazzled with many pages of description of St. Clare’s luscious Louisiana plantation, and long paragraphs of dialog where the white families grapple with their complicity in the crime of slavery. So for a modern critic, too much white perspective and not enough detail of the inner thoughts of the blacks who suffered under their hands.
Summarizing in too slender detail:
Kentucky-based Mr. Shelby has to sell some slaves to get rid of a debt. He gives up his precious Tom, and young Harry (son of Eliza & George–a slave on another plantation). Eliza catches wind of the transaction and flees in the night with Harry after warning Tom, who foolishly/loyally decides to stay and be sold off. Eliza & son have a miracle escape across the ice into Ohio, and are then sheltered by Quakers. Husband George also flees, passes as a white man, and joins them. Skirmish, but they successfully move to Canada. Tom, on the other hand, is on a river headed further south, rescues a young white girl (Eva) who falls in and has her father buy him (St. Clare). Oh lucky Tom, St. Clare is rich and kind, and his life is somewhat idyllic except for the fact that he left his wife & children behind in Kentucky. His wife hires herself out to make pastries and starts saving up for the Shelby family to buy Tom back, but (of course) disasters strikes: Eva dies of some sort of fever, then St. Clare (after he starts proceedings to make Tom a free man) is killed as a bystander in a fight. Tom’s sold to Simon Legree, a drunk evil slaveholder who ends up beating Tom to death. The whiff of temperance fiction is all over this tale, some grim descriptions of Legree’s dependence on the bottle.