Sunday, 19 July 2015

Reviewing the Evidence (Classics Edition!) - 12 Years a Slave

Title: 12 Years a Slave (US Link)
Author: Solomon Northup
Genre: classics, non-fiction, memoirs, autobiography

A few starting notes:

I approached this book with a mix of trepidation and interest - I'd heard of the film, but not seen it, and knew a little about the story, but didn't know what the writing would be like or how the tone would be. I needn't have worried.


Solomon Northup was a black man born free in the time of slavery in the USA. He is tricked, kidnapped, and enslaved, enduring the life of a Southern slave for a period of 12 years. This is his own account of his time spent in slavery.

Best bits:

The very best bit is our narrator - Solomon Northup himself. He never lacks perspective, considers the opinions and feelings of others, and speaks with a strong voice that reverberates through the pages. His account keeps a level of admirable dignity up throughout its entirety, and he weaves the prose together better than many bestsellers today.

Mr Northup never shies away from the realities of slavery - we are told of the whippings and beatings, and the pain of separated families, whilst maintaining that same dignity. He never includes gratuitous levels of violence or suffering simply for their own sakes, and is honest about everything - the good times and the bad.

He also always gives credit where credit is due in a gracious and understanding way. He refrains from judging slave-owners simply for being slave-owners. His first master, William Ford, he has genuine affection for and Ford joins the ranks of white men who put themselves out for Mr Northup's sakes (the others including but not limited to an English sailor, and the Canadian carpenter, Bass.) Northup insists that, in his estimation, Ford was only a slave-owner because he had been born and raised in the South - something which he could not help any more than Solomon could help being black.

Not so great bits:

Slavery is understandably an uncomfortable subject - and though Solomon Northup is an excellent narrator, he uses the language and the attitudes of his time. He thinks nothing of classifying people according to their skin colour - something which actually becomes very interesting in the case of the slave Celeste who is paler than her owner - and this can jar with modern sensibilities.

He also uses the 'n' word a lot - simply because this is how black people were referred to by those he is in contact with. This is historically accurate but mightily uncomfortable.

The subject matter, as can be expected, is not always pleasant, though is not gratuitous.


This book is excellent. It is written sublimely with a voice that is not often heard in accounts of slavery - that of an actual slave. More than just an outstanding piece of literature, this is also a work of historical importance - and should be just as much as a necessity on reading lists as the likes of Anne Frank's Diary.

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