History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 November 2008

From Life into Art: The Writer's Task

Harriet Beecher Stowe, daughter of a New England theologian and wife of a seminary teach, saw herself as an aide to God in healing the broken-hearted, preaching deliverance to the slave and setting at liberty those who are captive. In 1852 she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, a blockbuster novel that highlighted America’s crisis over slavery. The book left millions seething with anger and shame.

The most memorable passage in the novel describes the flight of the fugitive slave mother "Eliza" across the frozen Ohio River. Stowe learned the story directly from one Reverend John Rankin who helped her, and chances are she never knew that her journey that night became part of the mythology of the Underground Railroad.

The real story is hair-raising. One winter, a heavy-set black woman left the plantation where she was enslaved, carrying an infant wrapped in a shawl, escaping a slave trader who had come to sell her away south. Sheltered in a house until she heard dogs baying on her trail, she grasped a plank and ran to the river’s edge.

When frozen solid, the river could be crossed by horses, but a thaw had rotted the ice and it was full of holes and cracks, with river water running over it. The woman had no choice. She took a single step forward and broke through. Standing in freezing water, she plunged forward toward the Ohio shore, carrying the baby in one hand, the plank in the other.

As depicted in Bound for Canaan (Fergus Bordewich):
"Then without warning she broke through again, this time up to her armpits. She pushed the baby ahead of her onto the ice, then levered herself up with the aid of the plank. Laying the plank across the broken ice, she crept along it until she fell through once more. Again she managed to throw the infant ahead of her before she sank. Crawling back onto the ice, she continued her progress in this fashion until the ice disintegrated beneath her again. This time she sank only to her knees, and she knew that she was close to the Ohio shore. When she finally touched solid land she collapsed, physically spent.

In Stowe’s story, Eliza races toward the banks of the frozen Ohio with a slave trader in close pursuit:
"Right on behind her they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, onto the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap, impossible to anything but madness and despair... The green fragment of ice on which she originally alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she stayed there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake–stumbling, leaping, slipping, springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone–her stockings cut from her feet–while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, til dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side."

A white man had watched her struggle across the ice and was preparing to seize her when he heard her baby whimper. Instead of arresting her and sending her back into slavery, he led her to a safe house, the home of Reverend John Rankin. More than a decade later, novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe rendered the fictional slave "Eliza" and her perilous crossing of the river into literature.

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Blogger Stephanie Reed said...

If you'd like to know the rest of the story, what happened three years later to Eliza and the Rankin family, read The Light Across the River, my second novel about the Rankins. It came out in April. :-)

Stephanie Reed

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lynna for a great post. I'd like to say I'm glad we've come so far...but I know the struggle for freedom is still ongoing, here and around the world.

I've never read Uncle Tom's Cabin...now I have to!

9:08 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for a fascinating and memorable post, Lynna! Like Kathrynn, I've never read "Uncle Tom's Cabin," though I've heard of the Eliza on the ice scene many times. I haven't actually read the words, though--it's harrowing and riveting. A stark reminder of the horrors of repression, then and now.

11:23 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I personally wouldn't recommend Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's really a white-washed, overly sentimental view of slavery that has created lasting stereotypes about blacks and slavery that exist to this day. You're better off reading the fiction and narratives of actual slaves. It's more harrowing and poignant to read about slavery from actual former slaves, or the children of former slaves.

11:37 PM  

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