Book Review: Twelve Years a Slave

Thursday 12 February 2015 by

Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup, Book, Hesperus PressTwelve Years a Slave: A True Story of Betrayal, Kidnap and Slavery by Solomon Northup

Published by Hesperus Press

Tricked by two men offering him a job as a musician in New York State in 1841, Solomon Northup was drugged and kidnapped. His life in jeopardy, he was forced to assume a new name and fake past – and abandon all hope of seeing his family again. Taken to Louisiana on a disease-ridden slave ship, he was initially sold to a cotton planter.

In the twelve years that followed he was sold to many different owners who treated him with varying levels of savagery; forced labour, scant food and numerous beatings were his regular fare. Against all odds, Northup eventually succeeded in contacting a sympathetic party and managed to get word to his family. The ensuing rescue and legal debacle would prove no less shocking and intriguing than the rest of the tale.

Northup’s precise first-hand records of slave life provide a true-life testament to tremendous courage and tenacity in the face on unfathomable injustice and brutality.


It’s more likely that you’ve seen the Hollywood film than read Twelve Years a Slave. I haven’t, and decided I wanted to read it before I watched it. The experience was harrowing enough to make me realise that I might need to watch something a bit more cheerful first!

Nowadays, the true story of Solomon Northup beggars belief. The brutality, inhumanity and downright nastiness is often too much to bear, and the sheer frustration of Solomon’s story is palpable from the pages.

The archaic language takes a few pages to get the hang of, but it instantly adds to the emotion of the piece. If you ever forget that you’re reading a true story, you are quickly reminded through the language and nature of his tale. If there is one thing that it disappointing, it is the speed with which it finishes. There is much more focus on his time as a slave (obviously) but there is little to say what happened at the trial, and afterwards when he is reunited with his family. The trial, swiftly dealt with in a few pages, sounds much more sensational than he gives it credit for.

But other than that, this is a devastating read. You are totally obsessed with Solomon’s plight, and many a tear is shed. You can’t help but wonder about the slaves that are left behind, and you can’t help but feel the hopes lifted and dashed with each lost opportunity to escape or be rescued.

The idea that these people truly existed is perhaps the hardest to understand – how people could treat fellow human beings in the way they did. Solomon comes out of this a saint, and I will question how much of that is true, as it’s rare to find a balanced first-hand account. But saintly or no, the injustice of what happened to him courses through the veins of this book, coming to the surface as he describes the cruelty he suffered, the nature of the men that beat him, and the anger at slavery as a whole. He tries to be balanced, often explaining that he doesn’t know how it’s done in other states, but even so, you can imagine that he would have a pretty clear picture.

What would you do if your world and liberty were suddenly and viciously taken from you, if you spent twelve years toiling under backbreaking work, with little to no food and the promise of daily beatings? For someone to step out on the other side of that is a feat in itself, and his attempts at fairness seem to be directed towards undeserving recipients.

Although a quick read, it is not an easy one, filling you with shame, pity, anger and fear. It is brutal in its honesty, and quick in its telling, never leaving you with a respite. Often I prefer my reads to be easier on the soul, and this one is not, leaving you with questions unanswered and bewildered indignation. Read if you dare, but read you must, if only to understand and to never forget.

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