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.