Friday, January 7, 2011

The Slave Dancer, by Paula Fox

Jesse Bollier is a thirteen year old youth from New Orleans in the early 1800's. The slave trade is booming, but his poor seamstress mother forbids him from going to see the slave market down the street from his house on Pirate Ally. While he is out fetching candles for his mother, Jessie is captured and pressgained into service on the slave ship, The Moonlight, on which he works as a young hand until they reach Africa near the Bay of Benin. After picking up the slaves there, Jessie is made to play is fife to induce the Africans to dance. The cold-hearted and calculating captain forces the slaves to dance under harsh conditions in order to keep them healthy for the market. Jessie watches, unable to act in help to the slaves, or even his shipmates in their cruel conditions. After a long and dangerous journey, frought with punishments, murders, insanity and cruelty, The Moonlight sinks in a storm off the coast of Mississippi. Jessie and another African boy of his own age escape the wreck and are saved by a runaway slave to health, and finally to home and freedom, respectively. Jesse goes on to move himself and his mother and sister to Massachussetts, and he later serves in the Civil War as a Union Soldier, even spending a year in Johnsonville until the war was over.

In this book, children will come face to face with a controversy as old as our country: are any humans superior to others? In his sad adventures, Jessie struggles to retain his own dignity as a human as he strives to simply survive the cruel life on a ship far from home. Jessie comes to the conclusion that he is no better than any of the slaves in the hold, or the Captain, or the other members of the crew. And yet, because of this knowledge, he is able to pity the slaves as fellow- albeit, foreign- human beings. The language of the characters as well as the narrative is varied and strong in most areas, though I often became lost while reading through the more rapid events in the middle and end of the book. I believe this book provides an excellent narrative for the Pre-Civil War period, with amazing accuracy to the history of slaving in America, while also drawing attention to the racial issues prevalent today. Fox does not have a chip on her shoulder, or a message she is trying to beat into the reader's head. She simply has a story of how a terrible tragedy of history can in fact prepare a human for the decisions and events to come.

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