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Stolen into slavery : the true story of…

Stolen into slavery : the true story of Solomon Northup (2012)

by Judith Bloom Fradin

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Stolen Into Slavery : The True Story of Solomon Northup, Free Black Man by Judith and Dennis Fradin

“Stolen Into Slavery” is a National Geographic-published, bibliographic work that tells the story of Solomon Northup-- a black man born free and lured into slavery under false pretenses. A talented violinist, he was offered a job traveling with the circus by two white acquaintances. Stops along the way included the nation's capital, Washington D.C., where the whites bought Northup dinner and drugged him through his accompanying alcoholic beverage. He thought he had only become intoxicated but was actually slipped what is today called a "date rape drug."

He and several other characters we meet along the way were shipped to New Orleans then sold from plantation owner to plantation owner. He lived as a slave for 12 years, facing brutal beatings, minimal nutrition and hardly any sleep. The experiences he shares are horrendous.

Northup was eventually freed upon meeting a caring Canadian white man who agreed to send letters back home for Solomon to alert friends and family of his condition and whereabouts.

The powerful story has garnered the attention of Hollywood and inspired the film “12 Years a Slave,” the Academy Award winner for best motion picture, named after Northup’s autobiography.

The authors of this children’s version of Northup’s story did a wonderful job simplifying the story but not overly so, as it is very complicated and controversial.

Though what follows is wonderfully written and thought-provoking, the very beginning-- the cover-- could turn away young readers. Its lengthy title and not-so welcoming photo of the rough, dirty, calloused palms of a slave, bound at the wrist by rope, could be a little intimidating for the book’s audience.

To some potential readers, however, the cover could be intriguing as it suggests that the book’s content is about a powerful topic. One question that might arise from the cover is the use of a crumpled up sheet of paper, which will later be explained inside the text.

The endpages repeat the same image of the slave’s bound hands and the crumpled paper. This will become very important and significant as a young reader progresses through the text.

Chapters entitled “I Wished for Wings,” “I Will Learn You Your Name,” If I Ever Catch You With a Book” and “I Am Here Now a Slave” are listed in the table of contents and allude to a desperate and sorrowful time in Solomon Northup’s life. While chapters entitled “Solomon Northup Is My Name!” and “I Had Been Restored to Happiness and Liberty” offer the reader a glimmer of hope for Northup’s story. The titles are quotes from thoughts and stories he wrote in his autobiography which are included in this text. The ten chapters and their titles listed in the contents are organized chronologically according to Northup’s experience before, during and after being stolen into slavery.

The “Stolen Into Slavery” index provides access to text and visuals inserted throughout the book. The two are separated for readers by typeface, as visuals are listed in bold. Because it is a short, 107 page book, the index is only about three pages but is thorough in the information it provides.

The index is followed by a brief list of sources that make up the bibliography including books, newspapers and an interview of Renee Moore, the founder of Solomon Northup Day in Northup’s hometown, Saratoga Springs, New York. Other than the original “Twelve years A Slave” autobiography of this free man turned slave turned abolitionist leader, the authors also used other books on slave life, as well as the Negro Almanac. Even with this list, the bibliography is not extensive enough and does not support readers’ efforts in conducting further research. The following page contains a list of five online resources but will lead readers to massive sites with tons of information to sift through with providing any direct guidance. The list includes both primary and secondary sources to which most young readers/students will not have access.

There are no notes in the bibliography to document the authors’ research process. But from what little is given in the bibliography, one could assume the authors simply combined information from a variety of sources.

The “Note From the Authors” beginning section of the book is not very informative either. It is only a brief summation of the story which will soon follow. It begins with an introduction of the authors, who we find out are husband and wife. They refer to their “researching and writing about the life of Solomon Northup” as “both fascinating and inspiring.” The one page note then quickly runs through a little background information about slaves writing about their experiences , but doesn’t offer examples of this or tell how it contributed to this story. The duo also writes how they consider Northup’s story, written prior to the Civil War, is “particularly gripping,” though it would have served better to explain a little further and maybe include some brief anecdotes about when they first heard or read the story and why it inspired them to write about it.

The solace Solomon found from slavery through his music is mentioned, as his the title of his autobiography, and the authors wrap up their note with an attempt to validate their credibility.
“Of course, memory can be tricky,” they write “therefore we verified the basic events in bills of sale and in court records.” This shows that the authors aimed for accuracy in the text.

The afterword (page 109) is far more telling. For about three pages the authors delve into tons of background information on slavery, escaping to freedom and how little information is know about how many free slaves could have possibly been ‘stolen into slavery.’

In the story, after Solomon regains his freedom, he and his attorney try to get justice by They fail because the men make up lies and accuse Solomon of being involved in the plot and selling himself. In the afterword, the authors explain how this could have happened by discussing the laws that said blacks were not allowed to testify against whites in court. This and other background information -- like other scenarios in which blacks were legally allowed to be kept in bondage to pay off debts from jail and court fines but were eventually sold to slavery-- add to readers’ thorough understanding of the story. In the afterword, we also get up-to-date information about Saratoga Springs. We learn of annual celebrations and memorials held in Northup’s honor and even get to see a photo from one of the events. The caption of the photo tells us that those photographed are Northup’s descendants.

Other such photos are present throughout the entire text and definitely contribute to the overall purpose of the book. The photos evoke emotion and provoke further exploration of the institution of slavery and of Northup’s life and the world in which he lived.

The authors included little tidbits of information beside or underneath each photo. For example, a photo of a slave pen on page 12 helps construct an image in the minds of readers of what it was like for a once free men to wake up in a drab, confine space, shackled and chained to the floor. The caption explains that this was not the exact slave pen in which Solomon awoke from his drug-induced haze but is very similar to what it may have been like. There are several other photos like this including one of horse-drawn carriages in front of a hotel to represent the carriages he once drove as a profession. There are sketches of paddlings and beatings to get across to the reader the severity of the punishments slaves would receive. But the captions acknowledge that those illustrations are not the actual people mentioned in the text.

Maps are woven throughout the text in perfect timing. Each instance when Solomon is sold and/or shipped to a new location, a map of that region of the country is displayed with a caption describing each step of his un-welcomed travel.

Readers learn through one caption underneath a slave photo that no photograph of Solomon Northup is known to exist, however this particular image appears in his autobiography.

There is a photo of a house Solom helped construct as a slave, which has been reconstructed and relocated to the LSU Alexandria campus.

Every illustration seems to be carefully chosen and the text benefits greatly from the information each image provides.

Another available image is a timeline of slavery around the world, particularly the U.S. It includes the events of Northup’s life and helps readers frame what else was going on during his experience. It includes that changes of laws such as the 1662 Virginia law dictating that “all children of black mothers shall assume the social status of the mother: Children of free mothers shall be free and children of enslaved mothers shall be slaves.” Many other states quickly followed suit including New York, Northup’s place of residence. The timeline eventually leads to Solomon’s birth in 1808, his marriage in 1829, and lists every step of his enslavement thereafter, beginning in 1841. It contains details about the abolitionist movement, several wars, important anti-slavery publications like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon’s autobiography.

The last item on the timeline is perhaps the most thought-provoking. Sometime in the 1860s, no one knows when for sure, Solomon Northup disappears from public view, never to be seen again. The exact date, cause and location of his death remain unknown. Was he murdered by the men who were part of his enslavement for outing them to the law? Did he fall ill or die of natural causes? No one knows.

The University of New Orleans Department of Education has other books in its collection on this topic that could be used as supplemental or partnered readings. These include Doreen Rappaport’s “Escape from slavery : five journeys to freedom,” Virginia Hamilton’s “Anthony Burns : the defeat and triumph of a fugitive slave” and Sue Vander Hook’s “Frederick Douglass : fugitive slave & abolitionist.”

Each tells the story of slaves on a quest to escape who also dedicated their lives to anti-slavery.

Overall, "Stolen Into Slavery" is well written on a level young readers will understand. The vocabulary is not overly complicated and when controversial terms are used like the N word, the context is explained so readers will understand the negative charge behind the word and how it was used to address slaves and free blacks during that time. Such negative words are not used in abundance. This is a good thing because it doesn't expose them to something so negatively charged. However, it could be argued that the minimal focus on the negativity comes across as trying to clean up a messy subject that cannot be cleaned up.

I would definitely use this book in my 6th grade English Language Arts classroom. It will lead to questions about the awful institution of slavery and maybe even current race relations in America, which could then be used to teach students who to write argumentative, debate or persuasive essays stating their stance on the topic. It could also be used as a tool to teach an English Language Arts unit on biography/autobiography, interdisciplinary research assignments with social studies, and even a math unit about how much cotton picking, sugar-cane harvesting, etc. could be done in a certain amount of time.
  kljohns8 | Mar 31, 2014 |
Incredible story about a free black man from New York state kidnapped into slavery in the 1840s and remaining in captivity for 12 years. For this narrative, the Fradins draw mostly from Northup's own account, Twelve Years a Slave, published in his lifetime. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
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Solomon Northup awoke in the middle of an April night in 1841 with his body trembling, his head throbbing, and a terrifying question in his mind: Where was he?
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"Well, my boy, how do you feel now?" -- "I wished for wings" -- "I will learn you your name!" -- Life is dear to every living thing -- "A song of peace" -- "If I ever catch you with a book" -- "I am here now a slave" -- "How can I end my days here?" -- "Solomon Northup is my name!" -- "I had been restored to happiness and liberty".
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The true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York, who was kidnapped in 1841 and spent 12 years as a slave on deadly Louisiana coastal plantations.

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