Saturday, October 19, 2013

#59 (2013/CBR5) "Twelve Years A Slave" by Solomon Northup

Even after seeing the trailer for Twelve Years A Slave, the movie, I wasn't really thinking about reading the book. Slavery is so dark and so brutal that I figured even watching the movie would be hard. I wasn't sure I wanted to delve into a detailed account of what appeared to be a bitter story. But then I saw a positive Cannonball review and figured I'd have to read it. So I picked up a brand-spankin' new copy of, Twelve Years A Slave (1853) by Solomon Northup from my library.

It took me a little while to get used to the formal writing style. The beginning of the story is chock full of new names, characters, and places that I had trouble keeping straight. It was also in the beginning that I most felt the need for a historical commenter to put some of the events and customs into perspective. Although I've read a small bit about slavery in the South, I'm not very knowledgeable about living conditions and restrictions for free blacks in the North. I wondered if it was unusual that Solomon would leave for D.C. without leaving his wife a note. I also wondered how prevalent kidnapping like Solomon's was in that time period--especially after Britain declared the slave trade illegal. Solomon certainly ran into a number of other kidnapped free men on his journey south.

But then I got into the story, and I became so involved with Solomon's life that I couldn't put it down. Solomon has a pretty varied view of slavery and how it affected him. Having endured both a kind man and a heartless asshole as "masters," as well as work with sugar plantations, cotton plantations, carpentry, and playing the violin, Northup had a broad view of different aspects of slavery. He goes into the day-to-day drudgery and fear that encompasses a slave's life. The fear of a whipping for: not working fast enough; not picking enough cotton; not waking up in the morning. In fact, because escape was almost impossible where he was located, the only slaves he reported of trying to run away were those that were too sick to work but couldn't stand being whipped anymore for not working. It was their only choice.

Also, because of Solomon's upbringing as a free man and his education, he had a unique view of how the oppression of slavery affects people. He often noted differences between those that were born slaves, never knowing freedom, and those like him who had been forced into it later. Considering what Solomon went through, I found his account remarkably objective. He speaks highly of the people that treated him well, and acknowledges that there were men and women slave owners who were great people that only accepted slavery because that's what they grew up with and all they knew.

Some of the most disturbing stories were those of the women that Solomon came in contact with on his journey. One woman was torn from her children after expecting freedom and never got over it. In addition, Patsy, a slave that Solomon worked with for ten years, was a fantastic, good-natured worker, picking more cotton than anyone else on the plantation. Yet, she lived a tormented life, stuck between the master who raped her repeatedly and her jealous, vengeful mistress who blamed Patsy for the master raping her. Even besides Solomon, if there were anyone I most wanted to pluck out of the pages of that history and give a reprieve, it would be Patsy.

The trailer for Twelve Years A Slave looked promising. I hope it does some justice to what Solomon Northup and his companions suffered.

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