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Solomon Northup, born a free Black man in upstate New York in 1808, recounts his life up to the age of thirty-three. Solomon’s father, a kind, intelligent slave named Mintus Northup, gave him and his siblings a good education, and Solomon grew up helping his father on the farm, reading books, and playing violin. At twenty-one, Solomon marries his wife, Anne, and they have three beloved children and a happy life. Solomon has several different jobs in Saratoga: he’s a carpenter, a construction worker on the railroad, and a violin player, and he sometimes works at the United States Hotel during its busy season.
It is March 1841, and while looking for work, Solomon meets Brown and Hamilton, two respectable-looking white men who are searching for a musician to accompany their traveling circus to New York City and Washington, D.C. Solomon immediately agrees to be their violinist and departs with them, believing the journey will be short enough that he doesn’t need to let his wife know that he’s leaving. Because they are leaving the state, Brown and Hamilton encourage Solomon to obtain papers stating that he’s a free man; Solomon does so, interpreting their suggestion to mean that they are trustworthy. One night in Washington, D.C., Solomon begins feeling ill after sharing drinks with Brown and Hamilton. They encourage him to get some rest. While Solomon’s recollection of that night is fuzzy, he recalls people leading him outside to see a doctor before his memory fails completely. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a dark cell with chains locked around his wrists and ankles.
Solomon Northup begins the story of his kidnapping and enslavement with a cheery and thorough description of a normal life before it was so violently interrupted. Northup makes sure to describe his life as a free Black man thoroughly to set up a contrast to his coming enslavement. His everyday pursuits, his family, his successes in business, and his talent at the violin all weigh as evidence of a happy and honest life as a free man in Saratoga, New York. The meticulous detail in Northup’s descriptions of Saratoga reveals a diligent author and one who makes sure to describe each setting he will encounter in vivid detail.
Chapter 2 tells of the dizzying, confusing path that will lead Solomon to twelve years of enslavement in the American South, using foreshadowing to heighten the tension in Solomon’s travels. His employers initially appear legitimate and even take extra precautions for Solomon to travel with them as a free Black man. Solomon initially has no reason to doubt their sincerity, but in retrospect as the author, Northup knows he has placed his trust in the wrong people. Northup’s perspective as author allows him to include relevant details of his coming kidnapping, including bits of dialogue with his apparent “friends.” Northup thus heavily foreshadows his coming enslavement.