Ball and Chain

Ball and Chain

The true story of Solomon Northup’s life as a slave set the bar high for its award-winning screen adaptation.


Solomon Northup

Publisher: Pirates

Rs: 149

John Ridley won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his rendering of 12 Years A Slave — “Narrative of Solomon Northup, A Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1953” — on the big screen. Director Steve McQueen, who took home the Oscar for best film, is miffed because he wanted a share of the credit.

Reading this slim, heartbreakingly straightforward 220-odd page book, it’s clear why the unseemly row would break out so soon after the ceremony. Forgotten in obscurity for nearly a century, the book will forever remain grateful to the film for not faltering to weave together the story of Solomon Northup from all its shockingly real details, for not leaving anything unheard that he wants said.

And there is a lot that Northup wants to clarify — particularly the belief that the slaves of the South had no concept of freedom, or that they weren’t unhappy given that they knew no better, or that the notion of revenge didn’t burn their hearts. In a style that would be familiar to those who have seen the film, he tells his story at length, in detail, in unceasing depravity, and in unmasked joy at having escaped. He remembers the cannon firing that shattered windowpanes on the day his freedom came to an end, lingers on the shadowy swamps surrounding plantations where many a flight for freedom ended, contrasts with no surprise the lives of owners and their slaves, remarks on the religiousness and brutality that went hand in hand, talks about the spare meals and the limited time that they were allowed to have them in, the fear that held up the institution of bondage, and the joy that the interlude of Christmas brought.


Northup, who was among the few slaves in captivity to know how to read and write, prides himself on his dexterity with tools, his skill with the violin and his general intelligence. He gently dismisses those who didn’t fit those categories as “simple-minded”. However, this is not a story meant to impress. In telling it like it happened, in not leavening his story with suspense — allowing himself that liberty only for the day he is finally rescued — in fact telling what would come to pass even before it does, Northup realises that nothing substitutes for the truth.

Eliza did lose her children, one of them taken screaming from her, and did grieve away to untimely death. Northup did spend a day hanging to an inch of life. Epps did get drunk and nearly kill people semi-delirious. Patsy did get raped and lashed for a bar of soap till the skin peeled off her back.

If you could almost smell the grime and desperation on Patsy’s skin in the film, that was McQueen’s achievement. However, to Northup, a semi-lettered man born in the first part of the 19th century, rests the credit of unveiling the inhumanity of slavery — lash by lash.