Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup


Twelve Years a Slave is very much on the nations, if not the world’s radar at the moment. With the recent film adaptation winning the Oscar for Best Picture and BAFTA for Best Film, Steve McQueen (the Director) has brought Solomon Northup’s story to a huge audience. It was for this reason amongst others that we decided to read this book for book group. We also wanted to read a ‘hopeful’ book, and though it is not strictly hopeful in a way that is uplifting, Twelve Years a Slave is an ultimately uplifting book hidden in the atrocities of the slave trade in the mid-nineteenth century United States of America. The book is a true, first person account of a black man living in the Northern States of America who is one day kidnapped and sold into the slave trade. Robbed of his freedom and identity Solomon Northup is held as a slave and describes his own experiences during the years he was held.

I am very pleased that I read this book and I enjoyed it as much as you can expect, considering the subject matter. The writing is very matter of fact with little emotion, Solomon writes about what happened to those surrounding him and himself, what he was thinking at the time; there is less about his feelings. This approach, although lacking in emotional attachment on one level, is very striking. He isn’t trying to sensationalise his story or try and convince the reader how awful it was and how terribly he felt; moreover he is providing a true historical account of what happened to him and presumably many others like him. Solomon’s description of his life is very detailed, letting the reader understand the circumstances that he is forced to live under.

What struck me about the book was that Solomon was rarely despondent, obviously he had moments of despair, but overall he is looking for the best in the world that is surrounding him. He has praise for his first ‘Master’, offering that he is a good man – this idea is completely alien to me and I found it very difficult to deal with. Solomon seems to be trying to help his compatriots in slavery, providing support. He is also always looking for a way out. However, despite this positivity that comes through on the pages, he is also a very scared man, a man who has been stripped of his civil liberties and is afraid to try and get them back. He will not speak of his previous life as a free man, neither will he let on that he is educated. Early in the book when protesting his captivity he is beaten extremely severely leading to him believe that he must keep quiet about his past.

I would recommend this book but it is a tough read, there are scenes of brutality that are heart wrenching and quite unbelievable. Epps, Solomon’s ‘Master’ for 10 Years of his slavery, is a heartless, near psychotic drunk that is violent at a whim. He is a man that can see no consequence of his behaviour towards ‘his slaves’ and treats them no better than vermin – at best! I was shocked and appalled in equal measure by the book but compelled to read on. Just like some other historical accounts of mass atrocities, for example Schindler’s Ark, I think that it is an important book about a very important subject; people should read it, although I am sure there are other books of equal importance about slavery. The book and subsequent film are to be taught in American schools.

I would also recommend that you watch the film adaptation – it is superb. The performances are excellent and overall the film conveys the abhorrent circumstances the slaves had to endure. It is extremely emotionally powerful and not an easy watch. I would recommend seeing it at the cinema purely for people to have the shared reaction to the film, it is often uncomfortable and overwhelming and I found really makes you think and consider deeply what you have watched.


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