Genres: Memoir, History
Main themes: Racism, Slavery, Freedom
Rating: 5 stars
12 Years a Slave is the deeply moving narrative of how Solomon Northup, born a free man in the state of New York, was kidnapped and sold on as a slave. Following Northup’s journey, readers are able to gain a better understanding of life in 19th century America, particularly for those who were constrained by the cruel and inhumane system of slavery.
From a literary point of view, I thought Northup was an excellent writer. He was very skilled in capturing the essence of an event and the emotions of others. His writing often conjured such overwhelming and vivid images within my mind that on many occasions, it became unbearable to read on. An example would be the moment when Eliza, an enslaved mother who had previously been promised freedom, had her daughter taken away from her. What makes this incident more harrowing, was that the same thing had not long ago happened to her son. For a mother and her child to be separated is a horrible occurrence in itself but under the circumstances, where both children would be forced to endure the brutality of bondage (and who knows what other terrors) alone, that was the true horror.
Prior to describing the event, Northup said: “it would be a relief if I could consistently pass over in silence the scene that now ensued. It recalls memories more mournful and affecting than any language can portray.” Whilst it’s true that no words could portray what it must have been like to witness Eliza in agony, or the iniquity of the situation, reading those few pages produced a great deal of pain.
Overall 12 Years a Slave was a very insightful book. There was some really interesting commentary on the system of slavery and the nature of slave owners, which I thought to be very perceptive. There is no better way to learn about history than through the experiences of the people who lived through it. Also, I think it’s often the case that we recognise the horrors of slavery but it’s not until we read the thoughts and emotions of the enslaved person that we truly feel it within us, just how horrifying slavery was. This book definitely did that for me. I would definitely recommend it; I feel like I somehow owe it to Solomon to read his story. I have the utmost respect for him and his unwavering strength, and can’t imagine a better way to show that than by reading, remembering and sharing his story.