For those of you following along in the 15/15/15 challenge, my 12th book was Paula Fox’s Newbery Medal winning The Slave Dancer. I hadn’t intended to read it again, but after Desperate Characters and Borrowed Finery, it just made sense (plus it’s really short).
I first read it a few years ago and was stunned by the power of the writing and story, and disappointed that I hadn’t read it as a child. I later read an online review by someone who wrote not only did they not like it, they thought it was poorly written. That assessment has nagged at me ever since*, so I wanted to go back and see if my opinion of the book had changed. It hasn’t.
Jessie Bollier is a 13yo boy in 1840 New Orleans, kidnapped into service on a slave transport ship because he knows how to play a fife. As he gets his sea legs, Jessie gets to know the crew, and in the process begins to see his first glimmer of how complex human nature and relations are. Purvis, who kidnapped him, is funny and helpful with advice. Another man, Stout, is superficially kind, but inconsistent. Once the ship reaches Africa and takes on its live cargo of slaves, Jessie’s awareness is pushed even further, as he’s forced to play his fife to “dance” the slaves as they get periodic exercise on the ship.
The truth came slowly like a story told by people interrupting each other. I was on a ship engaged in an illegal venture, and Captain Cawthorne was no better than a pirate.
At first, these hard facts had been clouded over by the crew’s protestations that the sheer number of ships devoted to the buying and selling of Africans was so great that it canceled out American laws against the trade–”nothing but idle legal chatter,” Stout remarked, “to keep the damned Quakers from sermonizing the whole country to death.
The slimness of the book belies the heavy themes it holds. Fox’s clear, spare writing conveys Jessie’s terror, horror and dawning knowledge of the depths of human cruelty. There are certain things–the occasional kindness of others to Jessie, beautiful days at sea, moments of connection with others–that keep the reader from drowning utterly in the frequently gruesome history this book relates. Highly recommended for adults and older children.
*As I read more, and write more, and read more writing about reading, I find no books universally loved or hated. I often have disliked very popular, well-received books. But the line between “I didn’t like it” and “It isn’t a good book/It’s poorly written” is a big one to cross. I’ve dared to sometimes, and regretted it later. I’ve also learned, for myself, that sometimes if I don’t like a book, I’m not yet a skilled and discerning enough read to get it. To borrow a phrase, I’ll keep coming back, and perhaps have another, different experience with that writer or book in the future.
What have you read, and what did you think of it?