Born free, captivity borne

This is my review of Twelve Years a Slave – [ Stolen into Slavery: The True Story of Solomon Northup ] [Annotated & illustrated] [Free Audio Links] by Solomon Northup.

Although it is unclear to what extent this story was "ghosted" at the time, it is a vivid first-hand account of the experiences of Solomon Northup, born to a freed man in the New York area but tricked and kidnapped into slavery in the Louisiana of the early 1840s.

Having seen the film already, I knew what to expect plot-wise, and assumed that, since McQueen's drama is so powerful, I would gain little from reading the book, the reverse of what is normally the case i.e. books usually out-class the films on which they are based. In fact, I was impressed by the immediacy with which Northup's thoughts come through the language which, apart from occasional wording that seem quaint to us now, is for the most part a very articulate and engaging flow. I was also surprised and pleased how closely the director had kept to the book. There is a particularly powerful scene in the film where Northup is forced to beat Patsy, a young slave woman who is guilty only of going to obtain from a kindly neighbour soap denied her by a jealous mistress. I thought that McQueen must have exaggerated this incident for dramatic effect but found that it tallies with Northup's description. The latter's account of how Patsy is caught between a sexually abusive master and vengeful mistress makes almost unbearably moving reading even when one has seen the film.

I respected Northup's honesty, for instance, in regarding himself as superior to those born to slavery and reduced to a bestial state by their treatment, although at the same time he clearly respected and felt sympathy for those left in bondage after his release. He also conveys well the “catch-22” situation in which to reveal his past experience of freedom, and his ability to read and write, put him at greater risk of violence, since the slave-owners felt threatened by workers who did not conform to the stereotypes which seemed to justify their inhuman treatment.

The academic Sarah Churchwell wrote recently of the theory that Northup may have been a bit of a rogue in real life, colluding in his kidnapping in a money-making scam which backfired on him, but there is no evidence of this in the autobiography. Some of the interesting notes at the end of the book suggest that Northup may have fallen into drunkenness after his release, and been recaptured, but this cannot be proven. It could be that Northup became embittered, in view of the irony that, as a black man, he was not entitled, once free, to give evidence in court against those who had wrongfully sold him into slavery.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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