Happy Thanksgiving! Why not sit down and have a big slice of Newbery Pie? This week we’re discussing Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer. As usual. Sara will kick things off.
Young Jessie is a boy living in New Orleans. While out wandering one night, he is kidnapped and taken to be the “Slave Dancer” on a ship that illegally transports slaves from Africa to Cuba. His main job is to play a fife to exercise the slaves on their trip over the Atlantic. This book was disturbing on so many levels. I have the original edition from 1973 in the library. It contains illustrations that are not reprinted in other editions. Many of them make me wonder if I should reconsider having this book in my elementary school library. Then there are graphic descriptions of the violence the captain reigns down on the crew and the slaves. One crew member receives a beating for supposedly stealing the captain’s food. If the slaves appear to be diseased, the captain just chucks them into the ocean. The worst part was a scene near the end where the crew make the slaves dress up in women’s clothes (regardless of gender) and then treat them as “guests.”
Paula Fox is an excellent writer, but the story dragged in several places. I was all set to give this book two pies until I read the justice she meters out for the captain and other members of the crew. They are stuck in a storm and the ship sinks, drowning everyone except for Jessie and one slave boy (most of the slaves were chucked over the deck when the crew fears being caught by another American ship) who wash up on the shore of Mississippi. An escaped slave takes Ras in and helps Jessie get home. Benji seems to be able to find hope in books of groups of people being treated horribly (Sounder comes to mind), but I am quite the cynic. This time, I think The Slave Dancer attempts to be hopeful, but I can’t quite buy it. As happy as I am the crew got their just desserts, hundreds of slaves died right along with them; doesn’t seem quite equitable at all. When I have time, I need to research slave ships; I’m thankful that most historical fiction books published today do this legwork for us by providing details of the author’s research in notes at the end of the book.
I give The Slave Dancer 3 out of 5 Newbery Pies.
I agree with most of what Sara said. It is a pretty dismal book, but the writing for the most part is very good. I found the climax a little lacking, though. An American ship was approaching the slaver ship, and it seemed that justice was coming. Instead, a big convenient storm came and wiped everyone except for Jessie and Ras. It was almost like the author didn’t really know how to tie things up, so she just destroyed everything with a big storm.
I did like the complexity of the novel, though. As a boy, Jessie is intrigued by the slave markets, and tries to peek in as the slaves are being auctioned off. After his experience on the slave ship, he won’t have anything to do with slavery. He has to move north to get away from it. To me, he really grew as a character.
The relationships on the slave ship, were pretty complex, too. Jessie found himself liking some of the slavers more than others. His best buddy ended up being the same guy who stuffed him in a sack and forced him to work on the slave ship, and the guy who was kindest to him (I got the feeling that his kindness had some other, very creepy motives) ended up being his enemy. Jessie found himself feeling compassion towards the slaves and being repulsed by the at the same time. He definitely wasn’t a perfect character without any flaws, and I appreciated that. I found him to be likable and very believable.
All in all, it was a pretty good book. Like Sara, I found myself questioning whether or not I should keep it in my elementary library. I think the 5th graders can handle it, but I don’t know about younger students.
I give it 3.5 out of 5 Newbery Pies.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!