Let’s jump to the chase: This is an excellent, important book. It is the memoir of Solomon Northup, the son of a freed slave, and a landowner in Hebron, New York, who spent his time as husband and father, farmer and professional violin player. In 1841, at the age of 34, was offered an opportunity as a professional traveling musician with a circus; seizing the opportunity to make what would amount to relatively easy money, he traveled to Washington DC with his new associates. Shortly after arriving in Washington, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Along with a large group of other slaves marketed with him in Washington, he was shipped on a steamer to Louisiana and sold to a plantation owner.
The book is Northup’s recounting of his entire frightening journey, from his decision to take the job with the circus as a violinist, through the unsettling feeling of something not quite right upon his arrival in Washington, to his awakening from a drugged stupor to find himself in shackles, his journey to Louisiana, and the subsequent twelve years at the hands of various owners at varying levels of humanity. Northup’s descriptions of life as a slave on the plantation are mixed with the various elements of running a plantation that are fascinating, to say the least. But his accounts of the torture at the hands of unscrupulous and inhumane owners go beyond fascinating – they are written without dipping the quill into what could easily (and understandably) be an emotion-filled retelling; rather, they are clinically narrated in such a way that makes the horrors that much stronger. One can consider that a whipping of one hundred lashes can be a horrifying experience; Northup seemingly walks you through every lash, refusing to hold your hand for comfort.
At one point, Northup is able to bring us down a cozy path where he tells of a late summer party-like atmosphere of singing and dancing among the slaves, well into the early hours of the morning, and for a change the reader relaxes with that image, until Northup reminds us that the slaves are dancing and singing and making music at the demands of a drunken master, and rather than feeling the any of the joy they were expressing, they were only too well aware of the late hour, as it fell shortly after they had returned from the fields and had enough time to have their very sparse meals – and that after the music is finally allowed to finish, they will only be two or three hours before having to take to the fields again, for another 18 hours of non-stop grueling work. It is not a party, but a nightmare.
Northup’s eventual rescue with the help of an abolitionist from Canada (who happened to be passing through) is long in its arrival, but like the bird in the oven on Thanksgiving, the fact that the reader knows it’s coming makes it all the more delicious. The description of the efforts to bring the initial kidnappers to justice is agonizing in its racial unfairness, but not all that unexpected. Northup’s final scene of being reunited with his family is written in such a way that the heart fairly swoons.
It’s interesting to do a little reading on what Northup did for the rest of his life; I highly recommend giving the Wikipedia entry on Northup’s life a read. By now, the basic details of his story are already pretty well known (you get the entire gist of the book through the title itself), but it’s also well worth your while to grab the book and devour it as well. The good news is that it’s in the public domain, and can be downloaded, courtesy of the good folks at the Gutenberg Project, by clicking on this couple of words here. Hell, that’s almost like magic, isn’t it?
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being little more than toilet paper and 10 being the best thing since sliced bread, Doc gives this book a solid “A”. Don’t forget to grab your free digital copy today.