Book Review: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

September 20, 2004


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The Slave Dancer
by Paula Fox

This 1974 Newbery Medal winner, by the author of the Newbery Honor Book One Eyed Cat, is a bitter, painful story told in hauntingly beautiful words.

It is the story of Jessie, abducted from the streets of New Orleans and pressed into service on an illegal slaving ship in the year 1840; of how he survives the wanton cruelty, harsh discipline, danger, want, and evil company of a trip to Africa and back; of how his talent for playing the fife is perverted into making the slaves dance for their daily exercise, while he can scarcely stand to witness the inhuman conditions they are forced to live in; of how a poetic twist of fate makes him and a young African boy sharers in a strange destiny.

What is most real about this book are the emotions Jessie experiences, including many that he wouldn’t be proud of, and some that he could never explain even to himself. Combining a flair for depiction of conditions on a 19th century sailing vessel with a gruesome depiction of the evils of slavery, it leads Jessie to the sad but unavoidable conclusion that men are not to be trusted.

In a way, the ending is maybe a deus ex machina but, on the other hand, nothing remotely like a god appears in this tale. Set aside the improbability of the ending (which is the only possible ending that would have gotten Jessie home to tell the tale). Focus instead on the things that make this book special. Listen to the music of its language, let the power of the story get you in the gut, and learn its lesson on the just penalty of treating human beings like they are less than animals.