Thousands of books have been written about the Civil War – everything from battlefields to buttons. And interest has never been higher than now, with the sesquicentennial in its third year.
Good things all, but one wonders how many of us have read about what it was like to have been an enslaved human during that time?
The reluctance of doing so is certainly understandable. Many of us just keep that part of history in the abstract.
I was certainly in that group, but something compelled me to read “12 Years a Slave.” Written by Solomon Northup in 1853, a 2013 reprint is on sale. The movie version is due out this weekend, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt. Director Steve McQueen wrote the foreword. Toronto loved it and whispers of Oscar are marking the rounds.
Every year around this time I begin to think about what books I have enjoyed and any themes that might have emerged. Busy with my own, I haven’t read a lot this year. One I would hold up as top shelf is “The Unwinding” by George Packer. It was as if John Steinbeck came back, fired up the Rocinante and took a more piercing look at the country. In Packer’s book we find Americans reeling from the effects of the economic depression.
Another tough one to read is “Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers” by T. K. Thorne.
As moving as those stories are, “12 Years a Slave” gripped me with a force I’ve never felt before reading a book. Living as a free man in Saratoga, Northup was kidnapped and taken to the Deep South. He experienced kindness from a few “masters,” but there were brutes whose cruelty reveals the heart of darkness.
Reading those bad parts was very difficult to do. In addition to the savage physical treatment, there’s the killing of a spirit seen early on in the book when Northrup is being held in a slave pen close to the Capitol in Washington.
A slave named Eliza thought she was about to be set free.
Elated at the prospect of immediate liberty, she decked herself and little Emmy in their best apparel, and accompanied him with a joyful heart. On their arrival in the city, instead of being baptized into the family of freeman, she was delivered to the trader Burch. The paper that was executed was a bill of sale. The hope of years was blasted in a moment. From the height of most exulting happiness to the utmost depths of wretchedness, she had that day descended. No wonder she wept, and filled the pen with wailings and expressions of heart-rending woe.
I usually wait until December to declare my book of the year. There is no need to wait this time. “12 Years a Slave” takes those honors. It is a book and story you must read to better understand the Civil War.