Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a compelling account from the pre–Civil War era of the author’s harrowing descent into slavery and eventual rescue, has been selected by public vote as this year’s book of choice for Saratoga Reads, the community reading program now marking its ninth year.
Northup, a freeborn black man who lived with his family in Saratoga Springs, worked for local hotels and earned a reputation as a talented violinist. In his book, Northup tells how in 1841 two men enticed him to join their traveling circus as a musician, eventually luring him to Washington, D.C., where he was apparently drugged, then shackled and imprisoned. He was illegally sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he served three masters. He had left behind a wife and three children.
Twelve Years a Slave then chronicles Northup’s travails as he is passed from one owner to another and the political wrangling necessary for him to regain his freedom and be reunited with his family in 1853.
“Almost immediately after he regained his freedom, Northup—doubtless encouraged by the opponents of slavery—decided to make his story known, and within two years of his return, his book was in print,” wrote historian Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. “In its depth and breadth, Twelve Years a Slave provides an extraordinarily complete view of slavery in the plantation South in the years prior to the Civil War.”
Added Berlin, “On page after page, Northup tells of the brutality of chattel bondage, the endless and often senseless beating, the frequent, soul-crushing humiliations, the casual and callous destruction of family life. ”
To commemorate Northup and educate the public, Saratoga Springs has proclaimed a Solomon Northup Day, held each year on the third Saturday of July. The day includes a “Celebration of Freedom” event held annually at the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center, offering a violin performance, a keynote speaker, and a retelling of the Solomon Northup story.
Said Tabitha Orthwein, chair of the Saratoga Reads board, “Twelve Years a Slave is a fantastic choice for our community read. This autobiography takes us on an up-close historical journey with a fellow Saratogian whose account gives future generations the opportunity to learn about our history. There are boundless programming opportunities featuring local experts, related movies, and historic sites, and the Saratoga Reads events team is now making plans for an active agenda.”
Twelve Years a Slave is currently in the works as a film produced by Brad Pitt, to be released in 2013. The movie stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and features such actors as Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Some 370 votes were cast by the public in selecting this year’s book from among five contenders. The other four books on the ballot included another memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton, and three novels — The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Doc by Mary Doria Russell, and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.
Saratoga Reads will officially launch its programming for 2012-13 with a kickoff book fair on Sunday, Dec. 2, at Barnes & Noble in Wilton. The event, which will raise funds for the organization’s free public programs, will feature fiddle music in honor of Northup’s talent, an Elf on the Shelf holiday story time, an American Girl holiday tea, and more.