I’m going to go ahead and get the cliches out of the way first: 1) if you haven’t seen the movie yet, read the book first, and 2) the book is better.
This is not a beach read or relaxing piece of chick lit by any stretch of the imagination, but if you are into history (I’m not) or issues surrounding race, particularly in the South (I am), then you will absolutely enjoy it. I read a lot of stuff like this when I was in college and am surprised I’d never heard of this one before the movie came out. And maybe it’s because I just get more out of books than movies in general or maybe it’s because there is such a level of detail in this particular book that it could not possibly be entirely contained by a film, but the book was much more vivid. When Nick and I were watching the movie together at home I found myself explaining to him the full story behind many things that were not portrayed in depth. And even though he is not the kind of person who would normally be drawn to this topic he was still talking about it the next day.
If you’re not familiar with it, here’s an overview. It’s the true story of Solomon Northup, who was born a free black man in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1808. He was a man of many skills, including agriculture, carpentry, and violin. In 1841, his wife took the children out of town with her temporarily while she took a job running the kitchen at a coffee house. When Solomon was approached by two men who said they’d heard of his talent as a musician and wondered whether he’d travel with them for a few weeks to perform on a tour, he figured he’d make some good money and be back in time to welcome his family home. Their shows were sparse, but he was truly enjoying the trip with his white traveling companions and they were paying him quite well, so when they asked whether he’d be willing to continue traveling with them to D.C. he agreed. They obtained paperwork confirming his freedom before leaving New York City. On their first night in D.C. they went out to dinner and enjoyed several drinks. That night Solomon became ill and woke up to find himself bound in chains with his papers missing. The rest of the book tells the story of his experience being shipped to New Orleans, sold into slavery, and living for twelve years near Holmesville, Louisiana, less than two hours from where I live and about ten minutes from where my grandfather was born. There are some truly horrific scenes and it would be easy to feel overcome with anger that these things not only happened, but save for the kidnapping were perfectly legal. Have you ever heard this quote from Mr. Rogers?
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
I have always been white, have always lived in the south, and have always cared about racial equality and acceptance. When I read books like this I have a lot of rather unpleasant feelings. But while reading this story in particular I found it really rewarding to look for the helpers. There were indeed several people who helped Solomon Northup along the way, including the circumstances that led to his liberation. When viewed from that perspective elements of the story are actually rather refreshing: there’s hope for goodness in humanity after all. I found Solomon to be a reasoned and likable narrator who tried to see the good in people wherever possible. I only wish that I knew more about his life after slavery. I know that he returned to his family and that he later published the story of his experience, but additional details are scarce. Did he have difficulty settling back into his old life? The impressive resilience with which he endured the horrors of slavery leads me to believe that he probably did alright back home, but trauma changes people sometimes. The date and circumstances of his death are unknown–did he live to see the end of the Civil War? I’d like to imagine he did.