Sunday, April 27, 2008

Uncle Tom's Cabin Part Two

We are introduced to many new characters in the second part of the story who further the plot and message. Topsey is presented to Ophelia for the purpose of education by St.Clare but his true purpose is to save Topsey from the abusive men that owned her. We clearly see St.Clare's humanity and suffer with him when he loses his daughter Eva. The author uses Eva to further her faith in Christianity and also to demonstrate the ability of this faith to bring black and white people together in spirit if not in circumstances. When Eva dies, the slaves who loved her were as devastated by her death as was her family. This moment blurs the distance between the races and creates a momentary vision of equality. Again, this is Stowe's way of putting the races on equal emotional footing. Sometime it seems Stowe could be talking of her own lost child as she says about Eva, "Has there ever been a child like Eva? Yes, there have been; but their names are always on grave stones, and their sweet smiles, their heavenly eyes, their singular words and ways, are among the buried treasures of yearning hearts." Eva is the only person who can reach into Topsey's soul. Eva's death makes Ophelia more kindly to Topsey and St.Clare gives Eva's beloved Tom his freedom. If Eva is comparable to Jesus, then her passing creates miracles on earth for all who come to her faith.
When St.Clare dies and Tom is sold to Legree, the book's tone becomes even more tragic. The stark contrast between Legree and the benign slave owners is poignant. It is likely that more slaves endured the cruelty of Simon Legree than the kindness of St.Clare and Shelby. The author makes our hearts ache for Tom. His ability to rise above his suffering and stay faithful to God is astounding and his commitment to helping others is never diminished. He is Christ like in his ability to love and forgive. When Cassy and Emmaline plan to escape, Tom tells them to do anything except kill Legree. This scene is perplexing in that I think that the women would be perfectly justified in murdering the man who was torturing so many people. If they had killed him, everyone on the plantation could have run rather than just the two of them. Personally, I think God would have understood and forgiven. When I gave it more thought though, I realized that apart from religious belief, this approach might have alienated the very people who Stowe was trying to reach. I'm sure that no slave owners would want to hear Stowe saying that they should be killed by their slaves. By not promoting violence against them, she was more successful in changing minds and hearts. Although I had trouble with some of Stowe's language and ideas, her goal was noble and she was extremely courageous and effective.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Uncle Tom's Cabin

This is a difficult book to read for two reasons. The local language of the narrative slows me down quite a bit , however, most significantly, the dialogue is so shocking in it's racism that I find myself getting physically uncomfortable. The descriptions of babies being torn from their mothers are so heart wrenching. Reading only half the book, it is hard to make any definitive statements, but it seems that in spite of the passionate argument against slavery, there is still a condescending attitude by the author. Maybe I will change my mind after finishing the book but right now that is the way it feels. I looked up some information about Harriet Beacher Stowe and read that she was the daughter of a protestant minister with a puritanical upbringing. When she lost a child she became very sympathetic to the plight of black mothers who became separated from their children and saw slavery as a terrible evil inconsistent with Christian morals. Christianity appears to serve three different roles in the lives of the characters. For Uncle Tom, his religion gives him hope for a better life in the kingdom of God when he dies. Some critics condemn this concept as a way of keeping people passive and accepting of all the suffering that white men brought upon the black slave population. For two of the women characters, Mrs. Shelby and Aunt Ophelia, Christian belief is a clear reason to oppose slavery. Upon being told that Eliza, the baby and Tom are being sold, Mrs. Shelby tells her husband " This is God's curse on slavery!-a curse to the master and a curse to the slave! I was foolish to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil." Ophelia tells Marie St. Clare, "Don't you believe that the Lord made them of one blood with us?" Christianity is also used as an excuse to keep slaves by the statement of Mr. Wilson to George, " Let everyone abide in the condition in which he is called." Ms. Stowe portrays the slave owners as more benign than the traders and in reality they were equally evil. Mr. St.Clare admits to Ophelia that being kind to his slaves does not absolve him of guilt and he unsuccessfully compares the oppression of black slaves in America to the oppression of the lower class in England.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Part 2 of Asher Lev

Asher was so troubled throughout the story and he found his expression of pain through the image of the crucifix. I enjoyed the descriptions of Asher's reactions to the great works of art that he studied in France and Italy. Jacob Kahn warned him that his whole life would be different if he exposes himself to the world outside of the community and his prediction came true. I did not feel Asher was lost to his religion though. He still prays before saying goodbye to his parents and the Rebbe sends him to a Yeshiva in Paris where people will not know of his paintings. My feeling is that Asher will be able to find peace with his religion and art in time. The author, Chaim Potok, became a conservative Jew instead of an orthodox Jew and maintained his commitment to writing and Judaism. However, Jacob Kahn is a man who never did reconcile the two. We learn that he went through two pogroms in Russia by the time he was twenty five and it is the Rebbe who helped him out of Paris before the Nazis occupied it. Jacob Kahn tells Asher that it is good that he has not abandoned things that are meaningful to him. He says all he has is his " doubts, fears and art." He is a very conflicted character. He is prone to serious bouts of depression and stays in bed for weeks at a time. I think his sculpture of the two heads together, one his and one Asher's, is his way of saying that his culture is still part of him. The quotes from "The Art Spirit" by Robert Henri, the book given to Asher by his mother, were very revealing of the path Asher would take. He says, "Every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race." While I don't agree with this idea, it certainly furthers the drama of Asher's story. Without the Rebbe, his mother and Jacob Kahn, Asher may not have become the great artist of his destiny. While rejecting his image of the crucifix as too much, the Rebbe sends him off with his blessings. I would like to read " The Gift of Asher Lev" to see how the story continues.

Friday, April 4, 2008

My name is Asher Lev

It is an interesting time for me to be reading this book. My 23 year old son David is studying Judaism at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem right now and will be back in May to start law school. When he was growing up we celebrated holidays, attended synagogue a few times a year and maintained a cultural and historical connection to Judaism. Of my three children, David is the one who wanted to know more and he has thrown himself completely into studying. He is at an orthodox school and loving every minute. They study from 7:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night with breaks for meals and prayers. So I have a child going in the opposite direction of an Asher Lev. He knows that when he is back in America he will have to figure out how to be observant, go to school and have a social life at the same time. It's exciting for me to listen to his ideas and everything he is learning. My goal is to catch up with him so I can also understand more. I mentioned this to a rabbi recently and he said "The parents follow the hearts of the children." I think this is true.
The first half of Asher Lev has been engrossing. Even though it is told from a Jewish perspective, the themes are universal. Breaking away from our parents to become individuals is a difficult task. However, our past is a significant part of who we are and should be treasured. I'm reminded of a line from the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding,"when Nick tells his sister Tula, who is exasperated by her huge loud family, "Don't let your past dictate who you are, but let it be part of who you will become." The book is also fun for me to read because I grew up in Brooklyn and know the neighborhood where Asher lives and also the Brooklyn Museum that Asher and his mother go to. I also graduated from Brooklyn College which is the school that Asher's mother attends. I find it interesting that the person who accepts Asher's need to be an artist is the Rebbe, the one who I would least expect to understand. Maybe it is the one most close to God who recognizes the piece of God that resides in Asher.

A Wrinkle in Time

Since A Wrinkle in Time is a children's book, I think the views are simplistic but sweet anyway. The message that love is powerful and transformative is valuable to pass on to children. I enjoyed the fantasy aspects and the Mrs. W's in particular. The picture in my mind of Mrs. Whatsit made me laugh. It was similar to the fairy godmother in Cinderella who transforms the mice , the horse and Cinderella into something beautiful with a magic wand and the bippity boppity boo song. Her goofy character at the beginning becomes a beautiful spiritual creature. Perhaps the author is telling us to look beyond what is seen on the surface and to try to connect with people's spiritual essence. L'Engle also shows the reader the value of loyalty and bravery in Meg's single mindedness to find her father and save her brother. I especially liked the character of Aunt Beast. She provides a balance to Meg's intense and obstinate nature. It is in Aunt Beast that I see a Christian religious connection. She is a character of faith saying there are some things that you just know without seeing. She also reprimands Meg for speaking about her father in terms of blame and guilt: love is all that is needed in our human interactions. The end is predictable like a fairy tale; everyone lives happily ever after. I think young children might be frightened by this story- Meg's descriptions of not being able to breathe and murdreing children when they are sick. Even though all is well at the end, I would not have chosen this book for my children.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008