Title: All That Makes Life Beautiful: The Life and Love of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Author: Josi S. Kilpack
Publisher: Shadow Mountain
Genre: Historical Fiction
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 322
Binding: Trade Paperback
Reviewed by Tristi Pinkston for the Association for Mormon Letters
Like I imagine is true of many people, I was first introduced to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by seeing it referenced in the musical “The King and I.” In that film, the Burmese slave girl, Tuptim, wrote her own version of the novel as a play to demonstrate her feelings about the practice of slavery. The performance of this play stirred up the simmering controversy between Anna and the king, leading to his eventual death. I was curious to know more about the novel and picked it up at the library.
The book was published in 1852, years before the start of the Civil War, and brought to light many things that those living in the north had been unaware of. Some say, in fact, that this book brought the Civil War about. Given that the war was about more than slavery, that doesn’t seem likely, although I would say that the novel did help people understand the importance of changing the laws regarding slavery and gave them more moral understanding to cling to during the dark days of battle.
The difficulty for me with the novel is the language in which it was written. It was penned in heavy dialect, which I struggle to understand, and so I feel I didn’t pull from it everything that I could have. What I did gain, however, was a tremendous respect for the woman who wrote the book, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who went against all society’s expectations to create this story that would rile tempers, spur discussions, and cause a great amount of personal introspection. I was very excited, then, to see that Josi S. Kilpack, a friend and a favorite author, had written a historical novel about Harriet Beecher Stowe for Shadow Mountain’s Proper Romance line.
Generally speaking, when we pick up a romance, we expect to read the story of a man and woman falling in love and getting married. In All That Makes Life Beautiful, we go about it backwards—we start on the wedding day and watch as the couple fall in love with each other a second time by the close of the book.
Harriet Beecher was the daughter of a highly educated man and took after him in her quest for learning. She and her sister had started up a school and made the decision to devote their lives to it. Harriet had written some articles that had been published, and she felt she could earn quite a decent living with her pen. This was quite scandalous, of course, but that didn’t bother her. She’d rather be scandalous and happy than to conform and be miserable.
All that changed when Calvin Stowe asked her to become his second wife. She had been friends with his first wife, Eliza, and had admired Calvin as a good man. Now, her feelings became romantic, and she agreed to marry him, upsetting her sister, who believed she was throwing away everything she was to become a man’s property. Harriet didn’t see it that way, believing that she could be a wife and a writer and everything else she wanted to be.
But this was the 1800s, and women’s roles were very sharply defined. Contention rose in the marriage when Calvin would come home and find Harriet in the throes of an artistic fit and there was no dinner on the table. The situation grew worse when she became pregnant with twins and was too sick to do much of anything at all. She believed that her writing was her first priority, Calvin believed she should be devoting her time to the house, and tempers clashed regularly.
He left for a time to visit Europe for his career as a professor at Lane Seminary. She delivered twins while he was gone, and when he returned, she believed all would be well—he adored his children, and they would make it work. But the babies took so much energy, and she still found herself pulled away from her housework by her desire to write or go visiting or other things that were simply more interesting. Finally, frustrated beyond belief, Calvin sent for his mother to come teach Harriet how to manage a household.
And that Mrs. Stowe did, criticizing everything Harriet did until she felt she was of no use to anyone. Her health deteriorated, and she and Calvin spent time apart while she recovered. Only then were they able to understand their true feelings for each other and to learn how to appreciate each other for who they were instead of being resentful of their perceived failings.
It wasn’t until many years later that Harriet had the vision that would lead to her writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it was Calvin’s learned support that made the book possible. By that time, he had learned to appreciate her artistic temperament enough that he became her manager, as the book sold far better than anyone expected.
I found myself frustrated with Harriet through certain portions of the book. She had a very laidback attitude when it came to taking care of her house and family, sometimes to the point where it seemed she was purposely sabotaging her husband’s happiness. We read in a few spots where she did seek to annoy him because he’d annoyed her. She didn’t seem at all interested in balancing her own pursuits and her household duties, and resented any mention that she was now a wife and a mother and should take care of her family. That was something she learned by the end of the book, though, thanks to the teaching of a kind sister-in-law who had found balance and taught Harriet how to do the same.
When I first began the book, I thought it would be a bit more about how Uncle Tom’s Cabin came to be written and was surprised that it wasn’t mentioned until the end. However, as I read about the life’s journey that made it possible to write that book, I understood that choice. As I mentioned, it was the support of her husband that made her success possible, and they had to work out for themselves over many years just what that support would mean in their marriage. I also appreciated seeing the discussion of slavery in their community and in their social groups so I could better understand the common sentiments of the time and the things that inspired Harriet to feel the way she did.
I congratulate Josi S. Kilpack on another well-written, thought-provoking novel that I will certainly be recommending.