Book Review: 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

I didn’t know quite what to expect from this book. I have still not seen the film but I expect that to change soon enough now. I went in blind armed only with the knowledge that the book is about a free man tricked into slavery who managed to eventually alert the authorities and get free. Beyond that, nothing.

Yes, this is the story of a free black man from New York sold into slavery against his will. New York, a state that abolished slavery in the early to mid-19th century, had not known slavery for at least three decades at the time. When Northup was approached by a couple of gentlemen offering to hire his music skills for a circus in the Deep South, he never suspected there was an ulterior motive – especially when they took him to a government office and paid for papers proving his freed status.

Going to bed with a severe headache one night, he wakes up to find himself in chains in a Washington DC slave market – his money and papers were gone and all evidence of his identity vanished. He proclaims the mistake to the slave trader who calls him a liar and beats him. He soon ends up in Louisiana where he ends up working for several masters in a bayou of the Red River.

This is one of the most shocking books I have ever read, but at the same time, it is one of the most inspirational and educational. Northup’s attention to detail of his entire journey from his capture, working the bayou, the process of cotton picking and of the daily life of the slaves came with a few surprises. That’s the educational bit. The inspiration within the book exists within Northup’s attitude in his writing. He goes to great lengths to point out the kindness he received just as much as the brutality, the heroes of the piece along with the villains of the piece. What I found most humbling is the undertone that “I feel fortunate” and “others had it harder”.

Of course, he was angry about what happened to him, but all through the book, he manages to keep his analysis to a cold evaluation of the facts. This was written after his rescue; there is very little anger except towards the most brutal figures in the narrative. He admits he knows very little about the institution of slavery and isn’t really keen on discussing that aspect:

I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the peculiar institution. What it may be in other States, I do not profess to know; what it is in the region of Red River, is truly and faithfully delineated in these pages.

He is only interested in expressing his own experiences, not to provide a voice for abolitionists – although later in life he did, in fact, become an abolitionist. It’s important to remember that this is a man born free. It’s likely he may never have met a slave in his lifetime until that point. He was born around the time the state no longer knew slavery.

In summary, this is a great book. It’s horrifying and uplifting, it’s a page turner (unusually for a memoir) and it will teach you a few new things about what went on under slavery. It is now making me question just how much this sort of incident happened – free men and women tricked into slavery who never got their freedom back, their families never discovering their fate.


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