Okay, usually the disclaimer goes with a film review of a book turned into a movie, but this movie was so successful I thought I should mention it.
Being a book person, I thought I would read the book. I was quite moved by Harriet Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl” many years ago, and have returned to Fredrick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” more than once. Histories of slave life can be informing, but hearing about the experience from a slave gives us a new perspective.
Like many books in this vein, Solomon Northup’s “12 Years A Slave” sounds almost dispassionate in its description. It is likely a matter of style and time that Northup can describe his experience almost objectively. His impassioned pleas sound formal, but this was not a time for emotional storytelling. However, one cannot read this book without hearing Northup’s struggle to survive this living hell. What is most insightful by Northup is that he realizes his unique position in the slave world (a free man taken into slavery) and he is sensitive to the plight of others. When you can look with compassion on others in the midst of your own suffering, you are a rare individual.
Northup’s patience with waiting for the right time to reveal his free status is amazing. He questions himself a bit in the book, but even his one failed attempt shows how little trust he could put in others. It also gives you a glimpse into how trapped slaves were, especially those like Northup who was not even near a city.
As a music lover, I was thrilled to see the advantages his musical skills brought him. The chance to travel off the plantation, to earn some money, and even find solace, all speak to the power of music. Even in the midst of the slave system, both masters and servants seek good music.
What is disconcerting to modern ears can be his praise of nice slave owners, or those who treat them in a Christian fashion (slavery aside). Again, Northup views these people as victims of the system, which in a way they are. Of course, we hold them more responsible for their actions today. But it is interesting, and difficult, to hear a former slave speak well of slave owners.
But in those words you find the honesty which makes this a good book. I had hoped to have my 14-year-old read it, but it will be a tough read. Northup at times gets into details which are historically interesting (how he caught fish), but make for slow reading. But those with patience will be rewarded.
Having read the book, I do want to see the movie. Adding more of a “story” to Northup’s writing could make for a moving story on film.
If you want to read more about Northup, the Wikipedia page has a good summary.