Loading the Canon: 12 Years a Slave

There’s no denying the fact that Steve McQueen’s Oscar winning movie 12 Years a Slave was one of the most brilliant blockbusters of 2014. But if you thought the film was powerful, you should read the book. Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name is singularly affecting, historically informative and emotionally charged. Documenting the horrific circumstances surrounding his abduction, mistreatment and enslavement, this is not a work for those looking for light entertainment. The despair, indignation and irrepressible hope in Northrup’s book is expressed in such simple diction that it carries a weight impossible to replicate. A reader will approach the text expecting it to be traumatic, but it is difficult to menally prepare oneself for just how harrowing it will be. The death toll in Twelve Years a Slave is staggering; each person, a friend of the author’s; and each expiring in the most horrific circumstances.

Those looking for a happy ending will be disappointed. Northup is, after twelve years of appalling hardship, released. However, injustice bleeds through the text as the reader is reminded that Northup’s friends on the plantation, described with such affection, remain in bonds. The random, indiscriminate beatings and unthinking cruelty to which Northup was subjected before his rescue remain for them; he leaves behind people who will continue to suffer until their death, making it hard to feel much jubilation. Even Northup’s life after release is marred by prejudice. His attempts to bring his kidnappers to justice are unsuccessful because, as a black man, he has no right to testify in a court of law and, in a vile twist, his kidnappers sue him for attempting to defraud them. Whilst McQueen’s depiction retains much of the depth and integrity of Northup’s story, the words of the author seem to resonate more compellingly. However, whilst slavery of this kind is, mercifully, a thing of the past, Northup’s words have lost none of their power over the centuries.

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