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12 Years a Slave
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on 9 March 2014
I found it quite hard to get into as it is written in the language of the 1800s and while still English the turns of phrase are much more flowery and difficult to read than modern English.

It makes an interesting read as Solomon Northup was a free man from up in the northern states who was drugged and then sold as a slave when working in Washington. This man had known freedom and had little idea of a slave's life prior to being captured and sold.

He was very matter of fact about the way he described his work and his life as a slave initially. He was lucky in his first owner and could probably have told him about being a free man but having been beaten by the captors when he mentioned it he dared not even mention it again.

After his first relatively pleasant experience he suffered with other owners and the descriptions of how slaves were treated became more graphic.

He explains in detail about both cotton planting and picking as well as cane growing and harvesting. He also did some carpentry and became known for some inventions and his fiddle playing.

It is no spoiler to say he gained his freedom eventually after twelve years and he goes into some detail about how this came about.

It was good to read that after going through these twelve years he became involved in the anti slavery work and helped many escape through the underground railroad.

I can't say this was a great read as these sort of books are never enjoyable but it was interesting and looked at slavery from a different angle. I would like to see the film to see what they did to adapt the book.

If this period of history is of interest to you then I would say give it a go. If historical works of non fiction are not your choice then give it a miss as it is not an uplifting read.
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on 3 February 2014
With the hype surrounding the movie I thought I had best read the book first. Movies have a habit of distorting, or even changing completely, the tales told in books. However, without the movie I would probably have never read this which would be a shame because it is a fantastic, yet disturbing, book.

The story of Solomon Northup highlights the horrors the mankind is capable of inflicting upon mankind. Slavery is a nasty stain on the history of the human race, and the suffering inflicted upon these people should never be repeated. Unfortunately, it is still carried out to this day in places around the world and this book details the way people are treated.

Born a free man Solomon was kidnapped and taken from his family to be sold into slavery where he survived countless beatings and witnessed the psychological and physical hardships of fellow slaves. Some of the stories of the other slaves he knew are truly heartbreaking, especially those of Eliza and Patsey.

Fortunately for Solomon he had a stroke of luck that led to him regaining the freedom that was stolen from him. This is where this book goes from being good to great. Other books / films highlight the nastiness of slavery and yet this book also highlights that not all white people were bad. It shows that there were people willing to risk everything to help someone that others considered unworthy of being treated as well as animals.

The fact that it was written in the days of slavery means that some of the language / grammar can take a little getting used to. Some of the sentences seem to go on for ages and I found myself re-reading sections to get back on track with what was being said. Prolific use of the N word is, at first, quite shocking but you need to remember when it was written.
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on 28 April 2014
This frank and honest account of the author's experiences is often harrowing to read, yet is told with a straight forwardness that is refreshing and certainly lends credibility to the story. Having not seen the film version of this book I was unsure exactly what to expect within. And while it is simply told the story comes alive with the remarkable detail that Northup is able to recall from his time in bondage. The people that he meets are vivid and well rounded, and while for many of them of them we never find out what happens to them, this obviously not being a work of fiction, their stories still matter to us.
Overall this is a sad reminder of the atrociousness of slavery and will hopefully educate future generations so that those that suffered and died will be remembered for the kind of courage and bravery in the face of such overwhelming conditions that Solomon Northup showed.
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on 11 June 2014
This is a really important first-hand account of slavery in the 1850s. It gives you a very clear understanding of what life was like at the time, how little the life of a slave mattered, and how desperately they were worked till death and punished and confined. As a first-hand account, written by someone who was enslaved, shackled by his race, you will not find a trace of Victorian sentimentalism of an Uncle Tom "good slave working happily for his gentle master". Solomon Northup makes it very clear that that can never be true.

The somewhat antiquated text is hard to read, especially at the beginning, it's gets easier after the first couple of chapters. Kindle's built-in dictionary is helpful however for understanding some of the more obscured terms: "he scouted that idea" means he rejected it completely for example.

HOWEVER: this book is riddled with typos - basic mis-transcriptions form Harper-Collins. Examples include "carnage" instead of "carriage", or "live" instead of "five". This has been noted in a number of other comments and is in very poor form from both Amazon & Harper Collins. I have personally written to the publishers to inform them in more detail of the mistakes.
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on 19 January 2014
It seems odd to write a review of this engrossing book when the film (which I've seen since starting the book on my Kindle) is in all the news of awards. However; negro Solomon Northup leaves his wife and family behind in mid-1800s New York State to travel to Washington, D.C.,with two men he's recently met, ostensibly to play violin at a small circus. Once in Washington, he awakes in chains after turning ill following a meal with the men. By various turns of events he finds himself sold as a slave, now renamed Platt. He spends 12 years as a slave on cotton plantations in Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana, eventually finding freedom, and is reunited with his family once more, through the intervention of a moral Canadian carpenter he meets through working on a building project for his 'owner'. Solomon then wrote this book, which was a success in his time and has been rediscovered to be made into the current film. His comprehensive recount of what befell him and the reality of life in the South, where people were merely treated as beasts of labour due to the colour of their skin, is, from 2014, both fascinating and deeply moving. My wife said I should read it, if only to relish the author's use of language, which I found fascinating from an historical view. Reading the book and seeing the film was not contradictory - the book is, as usual, capable of providing far more depth and detail than the visual version. Only one fly in the ointment; the Kindle version has even more typographical and spacing errors than most books I've read on the screen, something my editing eye was forced to skim over at times. But, beautifully written and a fascinating visit to a time, thankfully long past. I saw one online review suggesting the book was an essential read and would not disagree. Wonderful literature, presumably handwritten at the time, and an absolute bargain for the Amazon price. Highly recommended, especially in conjunction with the film.
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on 25 April 2014
Solomon Northup was of slave stock but was born a free man in the state of New York where he lived, worked, married and started a family, enjoying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness promised by the constitution.

This however is 1841 when in the southern ‘slave’ states such niceties did not apply to those still in bondage; so when Solomon visits Washington DC to work he takes the precaution of securing papers authenticating his status. However this is no protection against kidnap, imprisonment and transportation to Louisiana where he is sold into slavery.

His protestations to be a free man earn him only a savage beating, leaving him resigned to using his wits and education to survive the hard labour and pitiless whippings that comprise his new life as he awaits an opportunity to reassert his freedom.

It is no giveaway that this takes a dozen years, in the prime of his life, to achieve and his harrowing testimony is all the more affecting for the lack of hyperbole. Told in a voice to which I mentally attached Lenny Henry in his serious but Caribbean mode, it has truth and humility as it intersperses the narrative of pivotal events with informative sections on the day to day life of a slave in the American south.

There is action and tension (although we know he gets get through it) but it is the matter of fact delivery that makes for the compulsive reading. Several times it is necessary to remind oneself that this is fact not fiction, and that such a set-up was ever thought, by anyone, as defensible.

An uncomfortable but strangely life-affirming read.

[See my weekly reviews each Friday on abibliodyssey.blogspot.com]
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on 24 February 2014
I chose this rating because I found it a gripping but terrifying book. The true account written in its simplicity and recall from memory by Solomon Northup transported me though the whole gamut of emotions leaving me feeling bereft and saddened even though the ending was more encouraging and joyful......(after 12 years. ) I was shocked at the simple matter-of-fact way in which Solomon Northup suffered and survived such injustices of inhumanity. Of course, this has gone on for centuries and one only has to look around the world today to see that cruelty still survives in all its terrible forms. As a human race, have we learned nothing? I was greatly affected by this book so much so that I was unable to watch the film of the same name...I had seen enough. I am only thankful that I do know very many kind, honest, gentle people who wouldn't even hurt a wasp!
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on 1 March 2014
Like many other reviewers, I read this ahead of the film, and was really glad I did. Solomon Northrup's journey from free man to slave and eventually back to freedom again is an essential read. I can't believe it practically disappeared from public consciousness for a century, while works like Uncle Tom's Cabin remained in popular circulation all that time. Perhaps it was easier for society to understand the true brutality of slavery from a more detached, second hand source?

Although Northrup told his story to a ghostwriter following his release from slavery, the writing does feel authentic and spirited. What I loved about the book - and Northrup himself - was that he never stops giving up hope of regaining his freedom. Even when he has spent years under the whip and can plainly see the futility of his situation, he is ever vigilant for means of escape. His wit, bravery and love for his family ensure his survival, and the reader will be rooting for him throughout. As a huge wake up call to the slavers and anti-abolitionists, this account of an intelligent man trapped in unremitting drudgery and treated worse than an animal was surely a sign that their superiority beliefs were completely unfounded.

The other outstanding quality of this book is the balanced portrayal of Northrup's bondage. There is violence, horrific in places, but it is never gratuitous. There is humiliation and hard work, and Northrup is open about the way his fellow slaves were treated as well, but it never feels like he is asking for us to pity them. Northrup is even able, on occasions, to describe moments of peace and reminders of the man he is. The fact that he was allowed to keep his violin and escape for a while in his passion for music must have been a godsend to him. He himself admits that it was sometimes the only thing that kept him going.

Even if this had been written as fiction, it would be well worth a read. Unlike the aforementioned Uncle Tom's Cabin, which muddied its narrative with superfluous passages, characters and situations, Northrup's tale flows easily and never deviates from its central message. It is obviously not something you can really call enjoyable, due to the content, but it is certainly engaging.

For those who have seen the film and may have been left a bit confused by some scenes, the book will answer every question. Be warned though, the violent scenes depicted in the book are actually far worse than what you will have seen on screen. They are necessary to show us just how easily and badly ultimate power can be abused, but they don't make for comfortable reading.

The feeling I was finally left with when the book reached its conclusion was one of awe and inspiration. Northrup was an amazing man, held back only by the colour of his skin. Who knows what he might have achieved in another time?
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on 11 May 2014
Now the film is out I intend to see it, but always prefer to read the book first as this usually gives far more background insight. I struggled at first with the style which is of the period and needs concentration, but got used to it after a while. It is easy to read this as a good story, but you have to remember that this actually happened and people were treated in this way in a so-called civilised country. There are many books and films that show how badly slaves were treated, but this first-hand experience really brings it home.
The thing that really got me was that, although Simon was a free man, because he had no paper to prove it, he could be enslaved just like that. And protesting just made things worse so he had to sit it out. He was lucky that, when his plight was known, people who knew him were wiling to make great efforts to free him, if they had not he would have stayed a slave till he died.
I shall now see how the film compares.
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on 26 November 2014
There has been a lot of publicity about this book, especially since it was made into a film, and I was curious to see what it was about (apart from the obvious, of course)
The style, as one reviewer stated, is sometimes harder going than some I have read, but ignoring that side, I found that once in, one was hooked! You had to read the next page, then the next, and so on. It turned out to be quite gripping in that sense. I found that I was getting angrier by the chapter, at the injustice of Solomon's treatment, and the fact that he was made too terrified to protest his free status. What made it worse was knowing that this was not fiction, but that it was a real man, with a family, that endured this inhumanity. Quite heartbreaking, heaven only knows what was going through his family's minds, in the years before the discovery of his abduction. A stunning book, well worth reading.
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