The Slave Dancer

 
Moderately graphic depiction of the slave trade.

What parents need to know

Positive messages

The behavior of the sailors, toward each other and toward the slaves, is appalling. The slaves are beaten and starved, and humiliated.

Violence

The book is necessarily filled with graphic violence, none of it gratuitous, from floggings and beatings to murder by shooting and throwing overboard.

Sex

Many of the slaves are naked, and the sailors enjoy looking at them. Jessie peeps through windows at women undressing.

Language

The racial epithet beginning with n is used frequently.

Consumerism
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Quite a bit of drinking and drunkenness on the part of the sailors, who also give young Jessie beer, which he doesn't like.

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.

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?

QUALITY
 

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.

Families can talk 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?

Book details

Author:Paula Fox
Genre:Historical Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Penguin Group
Publication date:March 28, 2004
Number of pages:176
Publisher's recommended age(s):9 - 12

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Quality

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Kid, 11 years old April 9, 2008
age 0+
 

Maybe disturbing for people who aren't ready

A good book that I recomend to people who can handle it. It's a little intense. There's beating and some language, there's also lots of dying. It's a little depressing to see what people did to the african slaves.
Teen, 16 years old Written byyellowblossomflower April 10, 2014
age 10+
 

Awesome, but can be hard to understand

I think this is an awesome book! It is amazingly written, and a great story. However, it can sometimes be hard to understand the actual literature, as the words can be hard. I actually had to keep a dictionary while I was reading it. This book is definitely for advanced 10 year old readers and above.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Teen, 16 years old Written bypinkkrunkladie3 April 9, 2008

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