Review: 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup

Where do I even begin with this book? Harrowing, inhumane, terrifying, unjust…a true story that shows both the cruelty of mankind and the perseverance of the human spirit.

Twelve Years a Slave is the incredibly shocking autobiographical story of Solomon Northup, an American black man from the “free” Northern States in the mid 19th Century. Solomon has a wife and family and appears to live a totally normal, happy life – until he’s illegally captured and sold into slavery in the Southern States (where slavery is both legal and commonplace). He then spends the next twelve years working on cotton plantations, being sold like a commodity and worked almost to the point of collapse before Solomon’s ingenuity and intelligence finally allow him to connive his way back to freedom. It’s an incredible education into the daily life of a slave plantation and one that I think everyone should be aware of.

However…

Having recently read “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself” by Harriet Ann Jacobs it’s hard not to compare the two books – both are own voices novels of life as a slave, both are incredibly sad, difficult reads and neither book holds back on the sheer brutality of slavery. Unfortunately, I found Twelve Years a Slave is just not as engaging as IITLOASGWBH. There seems to be a distance between the narrator and what is going on around him and unlike IITLOASGWBH, there is far less emotion and connection to what is happening. Twelve Years a Slave maintains this distance of perspective throughout – at times where there were detailed descriptions of methods of cotton picking or rationing food it felt more like an anthropological study than an autobiography. As such, I found it harder to connect with Northup. Perhaps this is because he wasn’t born into slavery, or because he knew that he wasn’t actually a slave but his calm observations belied what must have been an incredibly painful and stressful period of time. I can’t say that I didn’t empathise with him – of course I did – but Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote from her heart and it was her selflessness and the sacrifices that she made for her children that touched me on a much deeper level. 

Despite being a little on the clinical side, Northup really does manage to depict the unbelievable treatment that he and his fellow slaves were subjected to without anny sense of self pity. I simply could not get over the sheer difficulty and pace of the physical work that the slaves were expected to perform day after day, even whilst ill or injured. I found it completely terrifying that people were treated in such a way only a relatively short period of time ago.

Unbelieveably, there was a sense of hope in Twelve Years A Slave that I found really compelling. Despite the continuous setbacks, Northup never stops believing that one day he will be freed and will see his family again – perhaps because he already knows that this life exists. I was rooting for him at every turn and found his determination not to give up really inspirational.

Sadly, I think it’s important to remember that slavery continues to this day and that the abuse of people is happening in our own countries – probably not far from where we’re living – right now. This is a terrible injustice and I can only hope that by continuing to talk about the errors of our past we can build a better future.

Rating: 3.5 harrowing details out of five.

Shocking, upsetting but ultimately an inspirational story of faith in not giving up. An important book to read.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #24 Read a book where all the POV characters are people of colour. 

 

Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself by Harriet Ann Jacobs

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Well, I wasn’t expecting that.

Confession time – I’m not a fan of classic literature. I love many 20th century writers but anything published before that date…well, I very rarely enjoy it. So, when I chose this book (almost entirely because it was free, it fitted the brief for the Read Harder challenge and I’d already read The Colour Purple) I assumed that it would be something that I would need to slog my way through.

However – I was completely wrong. This book is exciting, emotional, educational and almost unbelievable. I LITERALLY CANNOT BELIEVE WHAT HARRIET JACOBS WENT THROUGH. It truly is eye-opening.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself is the true autobiography of Harriet Ann Jacobs, a slave to a wealthy Flint family. Following the death of her mother aged 6, Harriet begins to realise what a life in bondage will entail. As she grows up, Dr Flint becomes more and more interested in Harriet sexually, resulting in (I would assume) her repeated rape (the novel was published in 1861 so the references to sexual activity are a little opaque). She rebels, and eventually finds herself running away. I won’t give away too much, but the lengths that she goes to in order to escape and to protect her children are absolutely immense.

The book itself is really well written, emotive and terrifying in equal measure. Considering that it was created by (presumably) a fairly poorly educated slave, the way that  Jacobs details her life is remarkable. She’s clearly intelligent and this shines through not only in her writing but in the way that she tackles the situations that she finds herself in. Some of the things that happen to her are so extreme that they’re almost unbelievable but there’s something so honest and forthright about her literary style that I can’t imagine that she would lie. There’s no hint of self pity, no dramatization – just an account of a terribly sad, difficult, heartbreaking life, lived with courage and resilience. It’s amazing that the novel exists at all and it’s a testament to Harriet Jacob’s character that we’re able to read her story over 150 years after it was first published.

Apart from being a really enthralling read, the book is obviously educational. I knew very little about slavery before reading it and although this is only one person’s account, it provides an authentic, detailed depiction of everyday life. The emotive way that Jacobs writes is instantly engaging and I really empathised with her – her story will stay with me for a long time.

I struggled to get over the brutality and the inhumane way that slaves were treated. Jacobs mentions in the novel that back then there was propaganda which gave the impression that slaves were happy to be “kept” by wealthy owners. Looking back, it’s incredibly hard to believe that anyone would actually think that – I suspect it was an easy lie to assuage the owner’s guilt at the vast profits that were being made, the easy life they could lead and often the open access to vulnerable people – including children – for rape and other forms of sexual gratification. Awful. As previously mentioned, Jacobs sometimes makes veiled references to the way that she was treated but despite that it’s easy to read between the lines to understand what was going on. Because of the lack of graphic detail, I believe a slightly younger audience could use this book to learn about slavery from a first hand perspective.

At the risk of introducing a gender stereotype, Jacobs is a woman and a mother, and some of the most heart wrenching scenes involve her poignant writing about her children. It’s emotional and beautiful and strangely modern – very different to the Victorian approach from the same period. It adds a real depth to the story and is utterly heartbreaking and compelling in equal measure.

Overall, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a gut wrenching, emotive, thrilling story of a woman’s sacrifice, bravery and intelligence. A great read.

Rating: 4/5 stars.
What a fantastic story. Why this hasn’t been made into a film is beyond me.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #17 Read a classic by an author of colour.