Book Review: Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup

I made the acquaintance of Solomon Northrup almost by chance. I had heard good things about the movie Twelve Years a Slave, but I probably wouldn’t have watched it if it hadn’t been offered as entertainment on an airplane flight to France. I wasn’t planning to read the book, but, as I was walking my dogs I came upon a copy which was lying in the street, picked it up, took it home, and read it.
Solomon Northrup turned out to be one of the most interesting people I’ve encountered in literature. His personal account of the life of a slave in the antebellum south is rivaled, in my opinion, only by that of Frederick Douglass. In some ways it surpasses Douglass’ in its authenticity because, unlike Douglass, who was constrained by his illegal status not to reveal who his tormentors had been, Solomon Northrup names names.
Northrup was raised a free man of color in New York state and live with his wife and three children in Saratoga. He was literate and intelligent, skilled with his hands and proficient on the violin. In 1841 he was lured to Washington D.C. by a promise of employment as a musician in a circus act. He was drugged and sold to a slave dealer. His captors responded to his claims to being a free man by beating him within an inch of his life.
He was transported to Louisiana and sold to a plantation owner in Bayou Boeuf. His first master, William Ford was a kind sort. He says of him: “There was never a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubted have been different.”
Unfortunately, the kind master ran into financial difficulties and was compelled to sell some of his slaves, Solomon Northrup, now called Platt, among them. He sold Platt to a cruel and tyrannical carpenter who took an extreme dislike to his slave and at various times attempted in a fit of anger, to kill him. Only the intervention of Mr. Ford’s overseer prevented him. He eventually sold Platt to a man named Edwin Epps. Epps was quite the opposite of Ford and was cruel and brutal in the extreme. Slaves learned to pay careful attention to how much cotton they picked, because if they did not pick as much as they had the day before, they would be whipped, and if they picked more than they had the day before, the expectation for the next day would be increased. On this plantation everything was enforced by the lash.
Northrup writes “There was not a day throughout the ten years I belonged to Epps that I did not consult myself with the prospect of escape. I laid many plans, which at the time I considered excellent ones, but one after the other they were all abandoned. No man who has never been placed in such a situation can comprehend the thousand obstacles thrown in the way of the flying slave. Every white man’s hand is raised against him-the patrollers (sic) are watching for him-the hounds are ready to follow his track, and the nature of the country is such that it renders it impossible to pass through with any safety.”
Northrup tell not only his own story but the stories of a number of slaves with whom he became acquainted, and this enriches his narrative. Twelve Years a slave is a must read for anyone interested in the reality of conditions faced by slaves in the antebellum south.

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