12 of 15: “The Slave Dancer” by Paula Fox

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?

5 Responses to “12 of 15: “The Slave Dancer” by Paula Fox”

  1. Amy Says:

    Great post. I agree about the big leap from “I don’t like it” to “it’s not well-written.” That’s a distinction we could all be a lot more careful about.

    I read The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories: http://www.newcenturyreading.com/2010/04/the-151515-projectday-12.html

  2. Kate Says:

    What great conversations people are having here–I love that I finally get to go back and read them now that classes are over. I like your comment about the difference between not liking and not well written. I have not kept up even a little bit, but this is what I have so far:

    Children, Tribes and States by Barbara Ann Atwood: a great overview of tribal law, tribal courts, state courts and family law. It’s not entirely focused on the Indian Child Welfare Act, which is nice, and I love all the work she did gathering tribal cases to illustrate how traditional law interplays with more recently adopted Anglo law.

    Cleaved by Julie Powell: this book got mediocre reviews when it came out and I can see why, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying it. Anyone who read Julie and Julia had to see that Julie was primed for some breakdowns. Her writing sometimes veered toward whining, but she also acknowledged that fact. It’s not a flattering book for her, but I like her writing voice. The book clearly meandered at the end, but again, I was ok with that. Plus, she has excellent taste in television (her love of Buffy is only displaced by Veronica Mars).

    I’ve started both Epicure’s Lament and History of Love. I’ve also read umpteen law review articles, but no one wants to read about those!

  3. Inquirer Says:

    12 of 15 … Ruined by Reading. I didn’t think I was going to make it, but this was a perfect book for the day and the challenge.


  4. Jessica Snell Says:

    I went practical yesterday and read a book on potty-training:


    About “not a good book/not well-written”, I don’t think I mind people saying that as long as they explain WHY they say it. You know, if they can say, “XYZ are my criteria for a ‘good book’ and this book fails because it doesn’t have ‘X’”. Then you know what they mean by it, and it’s a more helpful critique.

    For instance, this makes me think of the book I liked least in this challenge, Dillard’s “Living by Fiction”, and though I might (if pressed) say I think it’s a bad book, I’d only want to say that while at the same time being clear that I think it’s a bad book because I think the philosophy of it bad. And that though this might be enough to make a “bad book” in my mind (I’m not sure it does, but let’s say so for the sake of example), I’d want to be clear that the writing was beautiful and lucid (i.e., I think it’s a bad point made well). I think there are very few books published that have no merits at all, and I’m more likely to take a reviewer’s negative remarks seriously if he or she is clear-headed enough to be able to see the book’s positive points too.

    But I wouldn’t hold it against a reviewer that he or she calls a book a “bad book”, as long as that reviewer is clear about what that means. If he or she is able to explain it and has a clear definition of “bad” and “good”. . . I think it could still be a helpful review.

  5. Farheen Says:

    Book # 12 almost had me finished!