From The Record June 30th, 2017
The Library’s intrepid president has been known to stray occasionally from the confines of Lennoxville…. Going southwest from Digby, Nova Scotia, there is a peninsula that separates St Mary’s Bay from the Bay of Fundy. Off that peninsula there is an island, and off that island there is another island, Brier Island, and on that Island is the Village of Westport and in that village is the Westport Public Library (part of the Western Counties Regional Library).
The island, the village, the library constitute a summer home away from home, and when visiting this selfsame Library last week I was delighted to discover that Westport Public is also home to a Book Club—The Novel Bunch. Lennoxville and environs boasts at least five assorted book clubs, many of its members known to your intrepid pres. So it seemed as if I had discovered a kindred species. Westport’s the Novel Bunch thrives under the care and guidance of Jacqueline Journeay, Library Clerk III in charge of operations. It has been in existence since February 2016 (its origin coinciding with Freedom to Read Week), and it counts over 18 regular members, of which more than half typically show up every fourth Tuesday of the month to discuss an agreed-upon title. (In an interesting twist, every February is Banned Book Month, when members are invited to present a title which has been banned at some point in its history, and provide some background!)
This month’s selection was the autobiographical 12 Years a Slave, the original version published by the author, Solomon Northup, in New York in 1853, immediately after the events that it relates. With very little persuasion, I decided to sit in on the discussion on Tuesday evening.
Solomon Northup explicitly pays tribute to Harriet Beecher Stowe: “Whose name, throughout the World, is identified with the Great Reform: This narrative, affording another key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is respectfully dedicated.” So this work was from the beginning intended as an anti-slavery polemic. In fact, after his deliverance, Solomon Northup presented abolitionist lectures, driven by the memories of the indignity and injustice he had experienced in the South. After some initial popularity, the book languished in obscurity for more than a hundred years, but has seen its fortunes rise with the 2013 film version, directed by one of Northup’s descendants.
In 12 Years a Slave we are introduced to the free man Solomon Northup, born in 1808, whose father was a freed slave. In Solomon’s early years he masters farming and music (the violin). He marries mixed-race bride Anne Hampton in 1829 and together they have three children. In his early years he is gainfully employed in a variety of occupations which see him explore a fair bit of northern United States and Canada. He tries his hand at farming, canal construction, wood milling and, always, playing music for entertainment in a variety of venues. Things go south when he does. Seduced by the promise of a lucrative job playing music in a circus, he is lured first to New York and then to Washington. There, the gentlemen who have been accompanying him show their true colours. He is drugged and imprisoned in a series of slave pens, then, all too efficiently, transported south. There he is passed from owner to owner, encountering all manner of oppression and persecution. He finally finds himself working on a plantation on Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana, the property of the cruel and capricious Edwin Epps.
What really draws the reader into the story is the wealth of incidental detail and the vivid bringing-to-life of the characters. We see how cotton and sugar cane are grown, how plantations are cleared, how the slaves are subjected to routine brutality, and how their typical days unfold. More compellingly, we are introduced to a series of individuals, who, but for this chance encounter with Solomon Northup, would have been relegated to complete anonymity in history, their stories untold. We learn of the tragic figure of Eliza whose children are sold off to different owners. We learn of Patsey, who suffers at the hands of the sexually abusive Epps and then even more at the hands of his jealous and vindictive wife. We hear the abuse, we feel the lash, we smell the blood.
We also witness, through Northup’s consciousness, constant debates and reflections about the institution of slavery. How, at this time in history (ca. 1850) in the capital of the United States, with its vaunted aim of liberty and justice for all, slave pens exist to facilitate the trafficking of slaves. He ponders the religious elements of slavery—how pious men can, by recourse to biblical texts, justify the existence of this inhuman institution. We see, first hand, how the mere systemic aspects of slavery corrupt all who are involved, breeding a disregard for basic humanity on the part of the owners and the complete abandonment of hope on the part of the slaves.
As one can surmise from the title, Northup’s suffering does come to an end. But that is a somewhat ambivalent outcome in that he must bid farewell to the other slaves who have no hope of ever achieving freedom from their endless suffering.
On Tuesday evening, the conversation in the Westport library was friendly, spirited, stimulating, and illuminating. The members of the group are a real mix of individuals from various parts of Digby county and from abroad. And the insights, drawn from all types of real-life experience, revealed many surprising facets of the work. In short, a good time was had by all!
Both the original book and the video can be had via Lennoxville Library and/or the Interlibrary loan service through the réseau. Happy reading all!