A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this is a moderately graphic depiction of the worst aspects of the slave trade, told exclusively from a white boy's point of view, and it will raise many questions, both historical and moral. Though the reading level is middle to upper elementary, sensitive children may find it disturbing.
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What's the story?
Kidnapped in New Orleans, Jessie is forced aboard a slave ship bound for Africa, where he is required both to act as a ship's boy and, when the slaves are brought on board, to play his fife while they are \"danced\" -- that is, forced to exercise. On the ship he meets the vicious and greedy captain, and the sullen and contentious crew.
But the rigors of the trip west across the Atlantic, including the brutal and unjust flogging of one of the sailors, do not prepare him for the horrors of the return trip, as the slaves are packed into the hold on top of each other, brutalized, malnourished, thrown overboard when they die, and forced to dance to the sound of Jessie's fife.
Is it any good?
The somewhat awkward device of Jessie's kidnapping allows author Paula Fox to look at the slave trade from the point of view of an innocent. Jessie, neither slave, slave owner, nor slave trader, an empathetic boy brought up in genteel poverty in a majority-black city, can relate to what he sees with just revulsion, and without hypocrisy or complicity, though the complete lack of any sort of racism in this son of the pre-Civil War South strains credulity a bit. But it's necessary to allow him to provide young readers with an emotional point of entry to a grotesque and alien world.
Fox does not pull many punches -- the depiction of the methods of the trade is clear and thoroughly researched, though an Author's Note about that research would have been welcome. She also makes clear the impact of involvement in the trade, from the debasement and brutality of the sailors to the lifelong emotional impact of the experience on Jessie, vividly and lyrically portrayed in an epilogue.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the author's choice to make the narrator a young, white boy instead of a slave or a slave owner. Does the fact that Jessie is more or less an innocent bystander in the slave trade make his description of what he sees more or less reliable? How do Jessie's experiences before boarding the ship affect the way he views the slaves? The sailors? In what ways do you think the horror of his experiences aboard the ship will affect him long after he returns to dry land?