Book review: A Spiritual Life paints detailed picture of Harriet Beecher Stowe

For many readers, the knowledge of author Harriet Beecher Stowe is confined to her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A few may know that she is from a well-known family of preachers and reformers, but that is probably the extent of what many learned about her in school.

In her new book, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, Como Park resident Nancy Koester does a remarkable job of filling in the blanks.

The book paints a detailed picture of Stowe, her family, her beliefs, her books, the times she lived in and, particularly, her growth as an author, crusader and evangelical Christian. Stowe was the best-selling author (man or woman) of the 19th century; the only book that sold more copies than Uncle Tom’s Cabin at that time was the Bible.

Stowe was the wife of a seminary professor and the mother of seven children (six of whom lived to adulthood). Koester paints a vivid picture of what life was like for Stowe: She cooked, gardened, sewed, nursed the children and delighted in decorating her home, but her husband’s salary was not enough to cover all expenses, so she began to write—mostly short articles for magazines.

Harriet’s exposure to the evils of slavery (living across the river from a slave state) led her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first as a magazine serial and later as a book. As a mother and a Christian, she felt she could not remain silent. Her intent was to awaken sympathy for the slaves by showing their humanity and to reveal how bad the circumstances were for many of them.

The book sold 300,000 copies in the United States and 1.5 million in the United Kingdom in the first year. In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called the most popular novel of its day.

When she was accused of exaggerating the conditions of slavery, Stowe wrote a nonfiction book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which confirmed that slaves were treated worse than she had written in her first book.

Stowe’s writing had the effect that she intended—the abolitionist movement moved into the mainstream—but her goal of a peaceful end to slavery was not realized.

Koester clearly describes how Stowe’s faith and her background as a daughter and sister of Christian preachers informed her stance in all matters. Later in life, she was involved in the fights for women’s rights, the humane treatment of animals, and the betterment and education for former slaves.

Though as a woman she couldn’t be a preacher, she had a pulpit in her writings and her life. Stowe spent much of her later life trying to reconcile her Calvinist upbringing with her experiences, finally resting in a belief in God’s love above all else.

Koester, who is an ordained minister with a master of divinity and a doctorate from Luther Seminary, spent nearly eight years writing the book, while also teaching and doing other writings. She began her research by reading books about Stowe and her times and learning about slavery, 19th-century theology, women’s education, people in Stowe’s life and other related topics.

Koester read many of Stowe’s letters and private writings, then visited places that Stowe had lived and libraries that contained archival materials about her. She then began writing and rewriting, letting the material “grow cold” before looking back. After finishing writing, Koester was ruthless about editing her book, so that she had control of what was cut. She chose and paid for pictures that represented different periods of Stowe’s life, the biggest factor being whether or not the image communicates something to a reader. She wanted pictures that didn’t create barriers to sympathizing with Stowe, notably no pictures with outrageous bonnets or whiskers (on Stowe’s husband, Calvin) that may have looked fine in their day, but look silly now.

Stowe used humor to lighten her books (even in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and so does Koester. Rich in detail and comprehensive in its theological approach, Koester’s book is accessible for the layman and imminently readable.

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life is available from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Micawber’s Books in St. Anthony Park, and online at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Koester will have a book signing at Barnes and Noble at HarMar Mall in Roseville on May 17 from 2 to 4 p.m.

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