The Slave Dancer
Author: Paula Fox
Page Length: 138 (including a brief Italian glossary)
Reading Level: 6
REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: The Slave Dancer is an emotional and revealing book about the slave trading practices in the South. Set before the Civil War, the book is a graphic depiction of the atrocities of slavery. Jessie, a thirteen year old boy, is growing up in New Orleans with his mother, a seamstress, and a younger sister. During the daytime, Jessie roams about playing his fife. Although he’s been warned by his mother to stay away from the slave market, his fascination often draws him near. Sent out for candles so that his mother can do her work to support the family, Jessie ventures out to his aunt’s house to borrow some. On his way his home is kidnapped and taken aboard a ship. With no hope for escape and no way to get word to his mother, Jessie is doomed to make the fateful voyage with the crew.
The crew (reminiscent of Treasure Island) consists of a hardened group of men. There Jessie learns the harsh realities of sea life. He witnesses violence, whippings, fear, and intimidation. Jessie learns that his ship is to carry slaves and that he has been taken to become “the slave dancer.” Jessie will play his fife to dance the slaves and keep them fit. Horrors continue to unfold as the slaves are secreted to the ship, shackled, and packed in tightly among the holds. The inhumane treatment of the slaves, Jessie’s own sickness at having to witness their suffering and pain, and the crews’ views of superiority are carefully blended by Fox to reveal how bad human behavior can really be. The reader feels for the slaves and wishes they too could free them from their fate. The captain forges in on despite all for he has money in his sights and the people in his way are disposable. The story ends with the pursuit of the slave ship by American ships, lives hanging in the balance, and a storm raging upon the ship. Who will live and who will die? What will become of the slaves still captive on the boat? Will Jessie ever return home? Fox answers all of these questions and more.
I would recommend this book for use with students who are mature and able to handle the content. The book is very graphic; one feels sickened and sad when reading it. After I finished reading it, I was even more discouraged at how dark and twisted human nature can be. With an insightful and mature audience, the possibilities with this book would be endless.
AREAS FOR TEACHING: After reading, one could compare the other atrocities committed against people throughout history. Higher level thinking skills could lead to the analysis of: why this happens, why people become commodities who are so easily sacrificed, and how we can prevent this pattern from repeating in the future?
BOOK CONNECTIONS: Treasure Island
REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor