The Slave Dancer
by Paula Fox
Published January 1, 1973
Content Warning As listed by Storygraph users: Child abuse, Child death, Death, Physical abuse, Racial slurs, Racism, Slavery, Trafficking, Kidnapping
Jessie Bollier often played his fife to earn a few pennies down by the New Orleans docks. One afternoon a sailor asked him to pipe a tune, and that evening Jessie was kidnapped and dumped aboard “The Moonlight,” a slave ship, where a hateful duty awaited him.
He was to play music so the slaves could “dance” to keep their muscles strong, their bodies profitable. Jessie was sickened by the thought of taking part in the business of trading rum and tobacco for blacks and then selling the ones who survived the frightful sea voyage from Africa. But to the men of the ship a “slave dancer” was necessary to ensure their share of the profit.
They did not heed the horrors that every day grew more vivid, more inescapable to Jessie. Yet, even after four months of fear, calculated torture, and hazardous sailing with a degraded crew, Jessie was to face a final horror that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
As I read through the Newbery collection some books are “meh” and others, like Slave Dancer, are just a punch in the guts. There is no way to read this book without feeling it.
Through the eyes of Jessie our innocence is pulled back, just as his is to see the horrors of the slave trade. The horrors of what men will do to other men for money. But it’s not a cut and dry, black and white presentation. In fact, one reason I love that this book is that it’s messy. That character in the book are messy, and have conflicts within themselves. That motivations are not clear at first. And some motivations are mixed.
The sailing imagery in this book is again seen through the eyes of Jessie, who has never been out to sea before. I also enjoyed that. So many sailing books have the same descriptions, the same troupes, and usually they are seen through the eyes of a salty old sailor, or an excited new comer. It was nice to read something different.
I think this would be a great book for introducing 10-12 year old kids to the realities of slavery.
Difficult subject, but worth the read.
“You’ll see some bad things, but if you didn’t see them, they’d still be happening.” - The Slave Dancer