Author: Solomon Northup
Publication Information: Atria Press, Simon & Schuster Inc. 1853 (original). 2013 (this edition). 320 pages.
ISBN: 1476767343 / 978-1476767345
Book Source: I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.
Favorite Quote: "Let not those who have never been placed in like circumstances, judge me harshly. Until they have been chained and beaten - until they find themselves in the situation I was, borne away from home and family towards a land of bondage - let them refrain from saying what they would not do for liberty. How far I should have been justified in the sight of God and man, it is unnecessary now to speculate upon."
Twelve Years a Slave is the first person narrative account of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. Solomon Northup was a free man living in New York. He was married and had children. He made an honest living farming and playing his violin.
In 1841, he was enticed to Washington DC by the prospect of a job playing his violin. Under false pretenses, he was lured into a situation from which he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He lived the next twelve years of his life as a slave - the "property" of other men, some kind and some cruel but all slaveholders.
In the beginning, he repeated his assertions of being a free man. That resulted in beatings and worse treatment. He learned to keep that information private while always being on the watch for a way to get back his freedom and his family.
He lived through being sold, being treated cruelly, being beaten, being starved and all other atrocities that were a "normal" part of the live of slaves. He watched mothers being forcibly separated from their children. He watched friends being beaten and tortured out of hatred. He saw some kindnesses also, but always from a life of bondage. Something no person should ever have to suffer. He endured, and he survived. Many others did not.
Ultimately, he found someone to help and re-obtained his freedom. Upon his return home came this book.
This book remained lost in history for many years. Sue Eakin, a history professor from Louisiana, discovered the book in 1931 in a plantation library in Louisiana. She then re-discovered a copy of the book in an old book store, and bought it for herself for 25 cents. The store owner sold it to her as "pure fiction." She made it her mission to revive interest in the narrative and to validate its historical accuracy.
In 1968, Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon published an annotated version of Twelve Years a Slave. The annotations included maps and references to validate the authenticity of the narrative. Unfortuantely, Sue Eakin passed away in 2009, prior to the current interest in the history.
Recently, again, the book has been in the media because of the movie. Steve McQueen had the idea of making a movie about the "slave era" in America but with an unusual character. He discovered this book and immediately reacted, "I read this book, and I was totally stunned. At the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn't know this book. I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero, and for me this book read like Anne Frank's diary but written 97 years before – a firsthand account of slavery. I basically made it my passion to make this book into a film."
Published in the north, the book looked to inform, raise awareness, and perhaps bring change. The book states, "My object is, is to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage."
More than a memoir, the book is a documentary account of slavery in that particular place at that particular time. The formality of the writing supports that objective to document and to display to the world the atrocities occurring. The matter of fact, non-emotional descriptions present the events and leave the reader to feel the emotion in the book and the horror of the treatment the slaves received.
Parts of the book have an analytical tone. Solomon Northup is able to stand back and evaluate the institution of slavery and the society of the times. For example, he has this to say about the slaveholders. "It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave's back, he will not be apt to change his opinion in maturer years."
This detachment makes the book less dramatic perhaps, but for me, adds to the power of the words and the events described.
When initially published, this book was news. Reading it now, over a hundred years later, it is history. A beautifully written, engaging, terrifying history.