Review: Harriet Jacobs – Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs - Incidents in the Life of a Slave GirlWow, to say this book was hard to read would be a massive understatement. I saw it as a free book on the Kindle bookstore, I would imagine it probably made it into the top 100 due to the success of 12 Years a Slave, which I have bought but have yet to read. And if it is as brutal as this was, I think I’ll be in for a tough time.

I think the part that made the book most harrowing was that it was written in first person, but it was so matter of fact. Without having lived through the times of slavery, it’s hard to even begin to understand the brutality of the time, especially now when anything of this sort just wouldn’t be allowed to happen.

But for the people who lived through it, it was their life and they had to get through, one way or another. As Jacobs explains in the book, kicking up a fuss or trying to escape from a brutish master would have such consequences that I can hardly bear to write them here, just reading about it was bad enough. Needless to say, if you were a slave, you were your master’s property to treat as he wished, whether that meant beating, flogging, or even death if your master was in that mood.

Being an autobiography, the book focuses mainly on the treatment of female slaves and the indecencies that they were subjected to as part of daily life. We live with the author as she tries to keep her children safe and to escape from her master without endangering any of her family and friends, not an easy business living in the deep south in these times. And escape to the North may have sounded like a dream when you were in the South, but when you get there it’s not all it cracked up to be, and the author spends her time there constantly looking over her shoulder for anyone who might recognise her and send her back.

But the book ends for the author with freedom, her and her children are free from their masters and from the life that she thought would be her lot, and was the pitiful existence for so many in that time.

While I was reading, I had to keep reminding myself that this was real, that these things did actually happen. Some of the stories the author tells are so nightmarish that you can’t imagine a human being would be capable of such cruelty, never mind that it would be the way of life for an entire country.

After reading this book, I can’t decide whether I’m looking forward to reading 12 Years a Slave or not. I know now that it’s going to be very hard to read, but I am quite interested to get a different perspective and to learn more about what happened just 150 years ago.

I’m giving the book 3/5, not because the writing was bad or because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it was so hard to read that I don’t think it’s a book that I’d seek out to read again for a long time yet. If you’re interested in learning more about american history and slavery, I would recommend the book as very enlightening, but don’t be under any illusions, it’s going to be a hard read.

3/5