3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant and moving,
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This review is from: 12 Years a Slave (Hesperus Classics) (Kindle Edition)
Solomon Northup was born in 1808, the son of a freedman whose ancestors had been slaves in Rhode Island. In 1841 he was tricked and kidnapped, handed over to slave traders and transported to Louisiana. While initially owned by "the kind, noble, candid, Christian" master, William Ford, he was sold after his master fell on hard times and for most of the rest of his captivity was owned by the cruel Edwin Epps. He had many bitter low points ("there have been hours in my unhappy life....when the contemplation of death as the end of earthly sorrow - of the grave as a resting place for the tired and worn out body - has been pleasant to dwell upon"). He eventually managed to smuggle out letters through a sympathetic contact and secure his freedom and return to his family in New York in 1853. I haven't seen the 2013 film based on this book, but will now seek to do so.
Solomon tells his story, published a few months after his return to freedom, in simple but powerful words and is at times quite laconic in its presentation of the sufferings he endures ("..after a bondage of twelve years - it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public"). Being written with the mindset of the mid-19th century, it contains assumptions that are of its time, e.g. while believing that the black man is as entitled to freedom as the white man, he seems to have imbibed the belief that most (though not all, in his view) white men are inherently superior ("[I was]..conscious, moreover, of an intelligence equal to that of some men, at least, with a fairer skin"; "I clasped them [his children] to my bosom with as warm and tender love as if their clouded skins had been as white as snow").
He recounts the rhythms of the slaves' lives, the brusque separation of family members, the beatings and hard labour, the inadequate and monotonous diet, but above all, I think, the sheer arbitrariness of the slave's life; the knowledge that a master can do anything he or she wishes to what the law deems his or her own property. Despite having worked for both humane and cruel masters, he is clear that "nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one" and that ignorant writers talking about the "pleasures of slave life... will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred [slaves] are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves."
One final powerful image: "Within plain sight of this same house [the slave pen in Washington], looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave's chains, almost commingled".
Brilliant stuff and a defence of human freedom that is relevant to all races and nations and to any period of time.