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12 Years a Slave
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This is an excellent book that is, unfortunately, terribly edited. I refer exclusively to the Kindle edition. It is replete with typos and missing words that frequently interrupt comprehension and that testify to an overall sloppiness that is difficult to excuse. If I had to guess, this was mechanically transformed from a paper to a kindle edition, with little or no human oversight. This lack of oversight shows on almost a page by page basis - and speaks extremely poorly of the overall quality. This is a real shame, because the book itself is indispensable reading for anyone who wants to *begin* to confront the trauma of slavery - a trauma that continues to inflect American and global affairs to this day.
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VINE VOICEon October 18, 2013
Although apparently slave narratives existed toward the end of the antebellum period, they were rare. For the simple reason that lifetime slavery did not afford the opportunity for first-hand accounts to be written. And, with the teaching of reading and writing illegal in most Southern states, few bondsmen possessed the ability to communicate their stories through the written word in any event.

Solomon Northup was well educated and was afforded the liberty to write his story. Tragically, this free Negro - born free, educated and a master violinist - was lured from his New York home to Washington D.C. on a promise of employment as a violinist with a show. Drugged in our capital city - very much a southern city fully in support of slavery - Northup woke in a slave pen and soon was shipped south to New Orleans and sold into bondage.

His initial attempt to tell his DC captors he was a free man were met with a promise of death if he spoke of that to anyone. Representing a substantial investment to his owners (he had several), his talk of being a free Negro or display of his education would have invited severe punishment or death. Certainly the southern planters and contractor who owned him at various times would not have cared anyway having shelled out significant money for his purchase.

For twelve years Northup lived the life of a slave. This account is riveting. The witness to the events of slavery - the selling process, vicious whipping and being run to ground by dogs, back-breaking labor, escape attempts, rape of favorite females who caught an owner's lustful look and all of the other atrocious practices of America's "peculiar institution," are dramatic and bring home an appreciation of what it meant to a slave to be a slave far beyond what any general history of the institution can achieve. Northup also provides interesting accounts of the cotton harvesting and packaging process as well as how sugar cane plantations operated as well as general accounts of how slavery was organized and managed in the places to which he was held.

Northup is a skilled writer. His presentation of his story - and the events are so riveting that they could almost stand on their own without a narrative - makes this a very well written as well as important narrative. Although written in conventions common to the era - the author sometimes addresses the reader directly and gives commentary that current writers would feel redundant - this is a very readable and enthralling account of what slavery was probably like for many who endured it. Highly recommended.
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on October 12, 2013
As slave stories go, this one is, in my view, without peer. Northup's s captivating tale -- which has gained attention because of the movie that shares the book's title -- is told in exacting detail with an easy prose. He sets the stage masterfully, describing people and places before proceeding into the narrative. Unlike works of fiction, this book is so compelling because, by all accounts, it is true. There is no polemical axe to grind, as with Uncle Tom (a novel at one point wryly referenced by Northup). Here you see both the brutality of slavery and the moments of kindness by slaves and even some slave owners. Solomon tells the story with clarity and intelligence.

The free versions on other sites I found were pretty poorly formatted, so spending a dollar for a polished version on Amazon is worthwhile, but this one is not the best of them. Granted, the book is formatted adequately, and any typographical errors in this version seem to be simple reproductions of the original.

However, the supporting material is a letdown. I read the version that includes the introduction by novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez. That introduction is borderline insulting, as it makes only a weak attempt to separate accounts with fictional elements like Roots from an authentic account like this one. Worse still, Perkins-Valdez can't resist indulging in repeatedly referencing her own recently released slave novel, even going so far as to quote herself. There are almost no historical elements to this version beyond the main book -- no mention of Northup after the book, no mention of he writer who helped him pen the book, nothing. There is more information on the writer of the introduction than there is the author. One other oddity worth mentioning: the original book's preface -- the one done by the man who helped Northup write the book -- has been curiously excised from this version too. That makes this version something less than complete.

For those looking for a better version, you might consider Twelve Years a Slave - Enhanced Edition by Dr. Sue Eakin Based on a Lifetime Project. New Info, Images, Maps, which contains a robust amount of supporting material and, better still, is right now the same cost as this version.
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on September 22, 2013
I was really excited to start reading what seems to be a priceless literary work until I openedy copy I bought on Amazon. The print is ridiculously small. The front cover looks like a child's book report, which made me suspicious of the inside and for good reason. Clearly SoHo publishing has tried (and failed) to save some money by making the print small and sparing the reader an engaging cover. I'm returning this one to try another publisher. I believe another reviewer posted similar comments about this version. My apologies to anyone looking for a review of the story, I try not to do this, but I couldn't read my copy and wanted to warn others.. I'll write another when I have a legible copy.
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on December 3, 2013
The book itself is great -- absolutely wonderful. But I see that all sorts of folks have rushed it into print in the last month or two, to cash in on the film (which is also great) - This edition is quite cheap and shabby; it doesn't even include page numbers. I'd recommend one of the other editions (although some of them are probably also shabby... but at least look for one from a reputable publisher. And really: the book itself should be considered a classic. It's beautifully written, and powerful in its descriptions and insights.
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on January 31, 2014
This is the harrowing account of a free black man who was kidnapped. His free papers were stolen, he was viciously beaten into submission and then transported to plantations in the south as a slave. His whereabouts were unknown to any and all who could free him. The idea that any man, of any color, or any background, could be captured and penned, treated like no more than a brute animal, should have been, then and surely now, nothing short of anathema to any breathing human being. Ignorance could not be a legitimate excuse, anymore than it could have been during the Holocaust. Myself, I am at a loss to understand why an economy driven by slaves would be exalted, why greed would be elevated to heights higher than human dignity.
Man’s inhumanity to man, man’s ability to turn a blind eye to human suffering for monetary gain, will render the reader speechless and horrified. As a Jew whose history is steeped in slavery, I felt personally affected by his plight and angered to the point of distraction, because there is absolutely nothing anyone can do today to reverse the effects of the terrible injustice imposed upon people, simply because of their color. They were kept illiterate, forbidden to improve their station in life, beaten violently for the slightest infractions, by people who would not have wanted such a life for themselves or anyone they associated with, and yet, they turned a blind eye to accumulate the all-mighty dollar. Those who hated, taught their offspring to hate. Those who hated, hired overseers who hated. Those who hated often got away unscathed. Justice was usually not served for the black man. No matter how many times one reads about slavery, it is impossible to get used to the idea that human trafficking existed in this country with very little opposition, for many years, and today, still exists in other avenues of the culture.
The successful economy of the plantation depended upon slavery, but while the South flourished, the slaves did not. They worked until their deaths, without hope of freedom or any basic civil rights. In this book, there is a definitive description of the life of a slave, by a man who walked in those shoes. No man or woman could possibly begin to understand the horror of a slave’s existence, the helplessness, the shame, the humiliation, the human suffering, unless they walked in those shoes, themselves. The reader will come to understand, more fully, how cruel and barbaric the practice was and will understand why it has been so hard, for those enslaved and their descendants, to achieve success, even today.
Families were torn asunder, children were separated from mothers, husbands from wives, friends from friends, and then subjected to abuse, beatings, rape, overwork, starvation, unlivable living conditions, and brutal masters, until they were completely subdued and weakened, unable to defend themselves, unable to change their circumstances, unable to do anything but acquiesce or die.
From Solomon’s descriptions of the despicable treatment of the slaves, as if they were less than human, lower than animals in bondage, made to respond like automatons, the reader will come to understand how strong these people had to be, mentally and physically, in order to withstand so much cruelty and exploitation, in order not to succumb. One will wonder why they would even want to live under such conditions, yet they found a way to find enjoyment and pleasure in the few moments they could share together, on holidays, in evenings, in moments when they were alone. They managed to create communities for themselves, even under such horrendous circumstances. Solomon makes it a point of saying that not all masters were cruel. He often found goodness in unexpected places. He, himself, was sometimes forced to be cruel to his friends and fellow slaves, forced to lose his own humanity by joining forces with the masters in order to avoid his own abuse and beatings. His plight, during his years as a slave, when he was required to whip fellow slaves, reminded me of that of the Kapos, during the Holocaust. Kapos were prisoners who meted out the justice and punishment upon other prisoners, for their Nazi captors. Were they co-conspirators or simply saving their own skins? It is an ethical conundrum.
Perhaps not all masters were the same, but all owned their slaves and valued them more for their purchase or resale price and their productivity, rather than for their lives. Some slaves, realizing they would never be free, tried to escape. When caught, the punishment was inhuman. They were whipped beyond comprehension or murdered. Although many tried hard to please their masters, they were often caught between the petty jealousies of the master and the mistress, neither willing to understand that a slave had no choice but to do what they were told, that they had no free will. There was no safety for them. There were no defenders of their plight.
Simply reading about the beatings, often beyond human endurance, made my skin crawl, made me want to find those barbaric, immoral, insensitive savages who treated other human beings so maliciously, though they are long gone. These poor victims had no recourse whatsoever. The mercilessness of the owners and the overseers leaves the reader aghast and hoping there is an afterlife where these people do get their just desserts. They were totally selfish and cold-blooded, pitiless and callous. There are simply no adequate words to describe that blight upon our history.
The years of beatings and abuse never broke Solomon’s spirit; he saw good qualities in almost everyone he met and always maintained a positive attitude, hoping to be free again.
In this memoir, he presents a clear, concise description of slavery from a slave’s vantage point. His daily life was one of monotonous, unending labor and fear. Solomon was luckier than most. He played the violin and could entertain plantation owners, occasionally escaping the toil of his fellow slaves. He was clever and could build and repair most things, unlike the vast majority of slaves who were kept totally imprisoned by their forced life of ignorance. He was therefore, more valued. He knew of the outside world, while they knew of no other than the world of master and slave. He lived to go from his capture and captivity to freedom and his wife and family. He lived to try and see the worst of these slave traders cringe in fear, but not, unfortunately, brought to justice. Even though he was a free man in the eyes of the law, in the eyes of the world, he was still subservient, still second class. Once free, I read that he lectured on his experiences and also worked on behalf of the cause to abolish slavery and to aid other slaves seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad.
The descriptions of the cultivation and picking of the cotton and the process of planting and cutting of the sugar cane, as well as the explanation of how some of the crude equipment worked, was sometimes tedious, and that was the only drawback I could find in this beautifully written memoir, read by Louis Gossett Jr.
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I have to admit that I'd never heard of this narrative until the movie got so much press this year. I had supposed that it was a work of contemporary fiction upon which the film had been based ( a la Jones' The Known World), and was surprised to learn that the book is a true slave narrative, first published in 1853.

While primarily a heart wrenching story of injustice stacked upon injustice, the book also provides a great deal of interesting side history. Northrop was clearly a keen observer, and it was the detail he provided that allowed for so much of the story to be independently verified many years later. I was fascinated by his accounts of a typical day in the life of a slave during cotton season, then corn, or cane. He describes vividly the processes of sowing, harvesting and getting the finished product out on the market. He describes the terror slaves faced regarding their expected and actual output in a day's labor, as well as the harsh punishments affixed for not meeting expected output. It's vividly described and I've not read an account that better illustrates just how hard a slave worked, and how much was stolen from them (beyond the obvious wages) with each day's labor.

The book is not an easy read. First, the sad and violent details are simply difficult to stomach. But, the flowery embellishment of mid-19th century prose also requires patient reading and frequent trips to the dictionary. After doing some research of my own, I've come to believe that while the ghost writer may have taken some license with the language, it is Solomon's voice and story we are reading and that the events described are all factual.

Overall, this is an important and invaluable read. It is sometimes hard for the 21st century mind to process the unspeakable crimes described in this narrative, but this stain on our nation should never be forgotten, and it makes a book such as this one very important. In the end, I found myself inspired by Solomon Northrup's spirit and actions in the face of such evil and adversity. A truly worthwhile read.
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on September 1, 2013
While the story is wonderful, this version of the book is the only the original pubic domain text available on Google and written in the 1850's, and it doesn't have the many extras of other books. Some versions, like one I use for my students, are written by prominent historians and provide in-depth insights and historical context, pictures, and extras. There is one written by a Harvard professor and I especially like the one written by Dr. Sue Eakin, the lady who discovered the story who lived in the exact location where the story took place. Authentication of the story became Dr. Eakin's lifetime story according to her website, which has many images and extras, including audio clips of the story performed by the amazing Louis Gossett Jr (remember him from Roots?). There is also a supporting book by a man named David Fiske that offers interesting details on Solomon Northup's life, but his version doesn't include Solomon's narrative -- only supporting info.
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on February 6, 2014
This book is so interesting and informative. I found that I knew not nearly as much of that era of (slavery and emancipation) as I had assumed that I did. My husband had purchased the Kindle version of 12 Years a Slave but the one that I purchased had several other stories as well. Twelve Years A Slave is about Solomon Northrup, who was born as a free person, but was duped into going on tour with two charlatans and sold into slavery. (Don't want to spoil the story so will stop here.) Other stories included were: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglas; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, byHarriet Jacobs and also true; and Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington which was actually my favorite book. He was born into slavery and was a child when slavery ended. Booker T. Washington was a brilliant humanitarian who lived through a terrible time in the History of the United States of America and he definitely left a lasting legacy through his many kind deeds and the school system that he founded in Tuskeegee, Alabama.
This book was about the same cost as the single book "12 Years a Slave". This is a great read and if you buy the Kindle version look for the cover that has the lock an chain on the front page. It is the version this the extra books. Enjoy, learn and weep!
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on December 30, 2013
Personally, I didn't care for it. Horrible things happened in the past, which we can't change. We need to move forward. The book was very well written but 'stirred the hatred pot.' I live in Savannah, Ga., and because the movie was not immediately shown here, people were writing to the editorial page that it was a racial issue. FYI, I am not originally from the South....from the Northeast....so this is not a bigoted comment. I would not see the movie as I don't like violence or any kind.
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