Twelve Years A Slave is a book that was emotionally jarring, but not in the way you’d expect it to be. Told in the first-person narrative by Simon Northup about his capture as a free man and subsequent sale into slavery, there are certain scenes you’re expecting to encounter. The depravities of humanity; the ignorance and hatred that blinded a nation; and some tear-jerking scenes of hardship with the human spirit’s will to go on.
You will find these scenes within this book to a degree, but what’s far more shocking than the subject matter is the way in which it’s approached. There is an aloofness from the point of view of the narrator that makes it difficult to become emotionally attached in a book that should be impossible NOT to be emotionally attached to. I wanted to really love this book and instead found myself wading through.
Here’s an example of the tone in which the narrator approaches things. And remember that this is a NON-fiction book about Northup’s own experiences …
“It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.”
And in case you’re wondering if I’m off my rocker and just a cold-hearted robot without an ounce of care left in my little soul — (not saying you couldn’t make an argument for this, btw; I’d love to see your case points) — realize that more time is given to explaining the tasks and jobs slaves were engaged in than ever connecting with the actual citizens and slaves Northup lived with for all that time. Here’s another great example, to really pique your interest:
“In a previous chapter the mode of cultivating cotton is described. This may be the proper place to speak of the manner of cultivating cane.”
Really? I didn’t pick up this book to learn about harvesting on plantations. The emotional depth I expected and hoped for never came to the surface. Add to the fact that the book is riddled with blatant grammar and editing mistakes that would make even some of the worst self-published books look passable and I have to wonder where things went wrong here. Part of me wonders if Northup really wrote the book or if there was a dispassionate ghostwriter who’s sole purpose was to suck the life out of the author’s experiences and tone things down to not create an uprise.
If you can get past the distance of the narrator to the events taking place, the story itself is quite remarkable. It just deserved to be told better.
Twelve Years A Slave is available on Amazon right now for just $0.99, so worth checking out. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book and where I went wrong.
(Oh, let me count the ways …)