When Twelve Years a Slave won the Best Picture Academy Award, British Director Steve McQueen gave his acceptance speech, thanked everyone and then as an afterthought added this: “Just give me one more minute. I’d like to thank this amazing historian, Sue Eakin, whose life, she gave her life’s work to preserving Solomon’s book.” I did not see the Academy Awards broadcast, and the name Sue Eakin would not have meant anything to me if I had. But fortunately her name meant something to one of my readers who told me a little bit about this amazing woman and her lifelong obsession with Solomon Northup’s story.
Sue Eakin was born in Bunkie, a small town near Alexandria in central Louisiana. At age 12 she rode with her father to visit a neighbor, Sam Haas (pronounced Hays in that area). Sam took Sue to his library and gave her a book to read while he and her father talked. The book was Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. Northup’s 1853 autobiography (which was ghost written by David Wilson) told the story of Northup’s enslavement in the very area where Eakin lived. It was the first time Sue had read a book that mentioned places she was familiar with – places like Cheneyville, Bayou Boeuf, and Lecompte where she attended school. She was fascinated.
When it was time to leave Mr. Haas’ mother, who realized how much Sue enjoyed the book, invited her back so she could finish it. On her return Sue finished reading the book, and from that point until the end of her long life she was obsessed with Twelve Years a Slave.
Eakin was unable to find her own copy of Northup’s book until she visited Otto Claitor’s bookstore in Baton Rouge while she was a student at LSU. Among the many used books, she found it. When she asked Mr. Claitor, a local expert on rare books, how much he wanted for it, he commented that it was just an old book that was full of lies, and sold it to her for 25 cents.
In 1968, after years of research to verify Northup’s claims, Eakin got LSU Press (the same press that published John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces) to republish the book which had been out of print since 1856. She later published a rewritten edition for young readers (9 years and up), and in 2007, at age 88, published the definite “enhanced” edition of Twelve Years a Slave which contained almost 100 pages of material gleaned from her lifetime of research on Northup’s story. Two years later Dr. Sue Eakin died at the age of 90.
I have read that Dr. Eakin was a very popular teacher at LSU-Alexandria, and I had that confirmed serendipitously by one of my wife’s friends. As my wife and her friend talked, her friend noticed my copy of Twelve Years a Slave, and mentioned that Dr. Eakin, a popular professor, taught her at LSU-Alexandria. Furthermore, she said she had visited the Eakin’s home many times. Indeed, it is a small world.
If you try to get Eakin’s edition of Twelve Years a Slave from your local bookstore, you may find that it is not available. As I found out it is an “on-demand” book. On-demand books are only printed when there are enough orders to make it worthwhile. You would do well to find it online, and order it from a company that has it in stock. I got mine from Barnes & Noble. The ISBN number for her book is ISBN-13: 978-0989794817. The ISBN number for the children’s edition is ISBN-13: 978-1565543447.
An article in The Town Talk, the Alexandria newspaper, gives you more information on this amazing woman. It was written before the movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture. And here is an interesting USA Today story about the recent New York Times correction of an 1863 review of Twelve Years a Slave that misspelled Northup’s name.