Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was the first book that made me angry, made me cry, and made me question racial injustices. Why would anyone write a book with such an unhappy ending? I asked myself.
Life for the protagonist, Tom, was endurable. His master, Mr Shelby, was a kindly man, but a businessman who accumulated debt. The novelist, John Gardner, wrote that ‘Every novel is based on two plots. Someone goes on a journey, and someone comes to town.’ The stranger who came to town was a Mr Haley, a cruel slave owner who purchased Tom to clear the debt for Shelby. Young Shelby Junior promised Tom when he got the money, he would buy Tom back.
Tom’s journey of beatings, deprivations and cruelty rose to a deathly climax when he landed in the hands of Simon Legree, a savage slave owner. At a scout camp when I was young, a girl called Sandra was reading the book to us. When she got to the chapter where Legree beats Tom to within an inch of his life, her voice trembled and her eyes began to fill up, as did mine. Brendon, our leader, aware of Sandra’s emotional reaction, paused the reading by asking us what the main theme of the book was? No one answered. Sandra raised her hand and said, ‘Justice.’ I never understood that. No one explained. How can justice be at play? The black slaves were abused. One thing the book taught me was that others have had a worse life than me. My treatment from Mr Farley and tension at home was nothing compared to the cruelty of slavery fictionalised by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the writer.
A recent reading of the book took me to the part where Sandra got upset all those years before at the scout camp. When Tom is beaten and left for dead, Shelby Junior turns up to buy him back as promised:
George Shelby, the son of the owner finally retrieves Tom, but he is a kind of shell, not much left. ‘Oh Master George, it’s too late.’
‘You shan’t die, you mustn’t die, I’ve come to take you home,’ said George with impetuous vehemence.
‘Oh, Master George, you’re too late, the Lord’s bought me. Come to take me home and I long to go. Heaven’s better than Kentuck.’
And herein lies the justice that Sandra referred to all those years ago. Tom, the first genuine Christian I ever met, albeit in fiction, was faithful, kind, and loving. Justice was served as a means of hope with the immortal line, ‘Heaven’s better than Kentuck.’ Legree couldn’t punish Tom anymore. ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,’ Jesus said. Justice for Tom would be served in the afterlife.