‘Twelve Years’ a lesson in history


Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 1:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 1:06 p.m.

Your grandmother always loved stories.

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“Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup, c. 2013, Atria, $15, 305 pages. (Special to the Guardian)

Nobody could tell them like she could, either. She was full of tales of caution and thrift and could remember things that happened back when she was a girl. She even knew stories about her own grandparents, the lives they led, and how they survived.

Sometimes, you wish you could have a talk with those ancestors of yours. You can't — but you can learn from a voice of 150 years ago by reading "Twelve Years a Slave" by Solomon Northup.

Born in July 1808, Solomon Northup was the grandson of slaves, the son of a free man, born a free man himself. He lived in New York, married a "colored girl" with "the blood of three races" in her veins, which gave her a "singular but pleasing expression." They had three small children and were enjoying a certain level of prosperity when Solomon was poisoned, captured, beaten, renamed "Platt" and sent to the South as a slave.

His first master was a "kind, noble Christian man" named Ford who, perhaps, could have been trusted with the facts of abduction and enslavement.

Platt's second master was cruel, as was his third and last.

For 12 years, Platt kept quiet, his eyes open for a real opportunity to flee and return home to his wife and children. For a dozen years, he endured 20-hour workdays, meager rations and daily beatings.

And then he met the man who put into motion events that would save his life.

Get into "Twelve Years," and you could be forgiven for forgetting that this isn't a novel. It surely reads like one – that is, until author Solomon Northup slams us into reality. We read statements such as that Epps couldn't let Northup die because it would have meant "the death of an animal worth a thousand dollars."

And yet, despite that brutality, Northup exhibits a sense of sly humor here. He comments on the absurd to the point that you can almost hear his eyes rolling from 1853, the year the book was originally published.

Even if you have seen the movie, I think you owe it to yourself to read this book on which it is based. For readers who love history, "Twelve Years a Slave" is one incredibly powerful story.

Terri Schlichenmeyer lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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