Sunday, February 16, 2014

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853)

The most recent selection for my Debbie Downer book club (where we only read sad and depressing books) was Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853). It most definitely fits the parameters of the book club.

Northup had been born a free man and lived with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York. He made a living playing his fiddle and got a lead on a job from two white men with whom he traveled to Washington D.C. While there, he was drugged, put in chains, and sold as a slave. Without any way to get word to his family or friends in New York, he was taken down to New Orleans and then solid to a series of men on a group of plantations in Western Louisiana where he was held in slavery for a dozen years.

The reason we have Northup's memoir and no writings from the many other free men and women who were captured into slavery is because he miraculously got word to New York and, with the help of the Governor and a white man who knew Northup and his family, was recused from the Epps plantation. The promise of a somewhat happy ending made the horrors of the narrative a little more bearable, but Northup doesn't hold back from describing the institution of slavery to his white, Northern audience, and the book made quite an impression when it was first released, particularly for its parallels (and arguments with) the extremely popular Uncle Tom's Cabin, which had been published the year before.

I've read a few slave narratives, and this one is different from what I expect from the genre. Less overtly religious and rhetorical, the fast-reading book sometimes sounds like a novel (characterization, action sequences, foreshadowing) and sometimes as a sociological description of Southern life for the interested northerner.

I haven't seen the movie yet (since I was waiting to finish the book), but if any slave narrative could be made into a compelling modern film, this is the one. I'm very interested to check it out. And you should check this out --since this book is in the public domain, everyone can read it for free! I downloaded a free copy from Google Play and read it on my phone. You can also get it in all kinds of formats here.

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