The Slave Dancer is a book out of place. Paula Fox's novel of a 13-year-old boy press-ganged by slavers in 1840s New Orleans isn't like the other books on the list of Newbery Medal winners. Some of them are certainly better for older readers than the younger audience the award is intended for, but all of them are best suited for no one older than high school.
This book should have won the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, not the Newbery Medal. It's a children's novel in the way books like Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver's Travels are children's novels—entertaining to younger readers, but only comprehendable by an older audience.The Slave Dancer is mature, beautifully written, and very dark.
Jessie Bollier lives with his widowed mother and younger sister in New Orleans, and they are poor. Jessie's mother is a seamstress who is at least partially dependent on her late husband's Aunt Agatha for survival. On an evening visit to Aunt Agatha to borrow candles, Jessie is kidnapped and taken aboard The Moonlight, a ship devoted to the illegal importation of slaves from Africa.
The men aboard The Moonlight are a motley crew. Some, like Purvis and Ned, aren't blackhearted but still serve the slave trade; others, like Captain Cawthorne and Ben Stout, are vile men who despise the blacks as less than animals. Jessie hasn't had much direct experience with slavery, except glimpses of slaves he's glimpsed on the streets of New Orleans.
He finds the voyage to Africa bad enough, but once the ship has picked up its cargo of slaves it becomes much worse. Jessie's job is to play his fife every other morning so the slaves can dance to the music in order for them to be exercised and thus maintain some measure of health during the voyage. It's a strange job, and a hateful one: the slaves are barely able to move, let alone dance.
In sight of the United States coast, the ship sinks. Jessie helps one black boy get away and escapes himself, but the ship, its crew, and its "cargo" are all lost. The book ends with the startling observation that Jessie can no longer stand to hear music, because it brings to him the unbearable images of the slaves stamping and shuffling on the deck of The Moonlight.
Yes, the book is about a boy, but it isn't a children's book. At least, not entirely. It's not just because Fox so vividly describes the horror of the slave ships, the inhumane and bestial conditions in which the kidnapped blacks were forced to travel, or the evil to which men are able to stoop. Children can handle more than we often give them credit for.
What sets The Slave Dancer apart is the quality of the writing and the solemnity of the narrative. There are no easy solutions, no happy endings, no youthful zeal that rebels against the prevailing evil and changes the hearts of others. Fox shows that there is great evil in the world, and she also shows that evil is not always something we can avoid or even fight.
Am I saying younger readers shouldn't read this book? Absolutely not. But it isn't a children's novel in the same way the other Newbery Medalists certainly are. This could partly be due to the fact that Fox was primarily an adult novelist, though she gained fame through her work in children's literature.
Lots of books present stories about the wickedness of slavery and racism, and many of them are gritty. Not many of them do so without preaching and without flinching, which is where The Slave Dancer succeeds. Fox is a master of language and metaphor, and while the book seldom rises above the sad notes of a dirge, it is pure poetry from start to finish, and one of the best novels ever written about the slave trade.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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