Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5
The 1974 Newbery Medal Winner, The Slave Dancer, is the store of Jessie, a young musician kidnapped from the streets of New Orleans to “dance” the captives on a slaving vessel. Jessie sails to the Bay of Benin with the crew, learning something of sailors and the cruelty of men on the way. Once captives or on board, he is responsible for playing his fife while the Africans are made to dance; theoretically, this keeps them in better physical shape and enhanced the captain’s profit. When both Spanish and American cruisers approach the salver, the captain throws all the slaves and slaving equipment overboard, but shortly thereafter wrecks in a storm. Jessie escapes, along with a young African boy who Jessie befriended. They wash up in Mississippi and are found by an escaped slaves. The African is taken somewhere safe, while Jessie returns to his mother in New Orleans. He eventually serves with the Union Army, his experiences on the slaver having firmed his opinion against slavery. The book ends by alerting the readers that Jessie’s involuntary journey ruined music for him forever.
The historical milieu of the book is well drawn. Although the date of Jessie’s voyage (1840) is not mentioned until nearly the end of the book, Jessie learns early on that he’s basically sailing on a pirate ship, since Britain, America, and Spain have all banned the importation of slaves. The author shows this complexity concretely: the captain carries flags for many different nations and the crew runs up a different one based on the nationality of the vessel they have sighted. They also must surreptitiously land slaves on unpopulated areas of Cuba, where their Spanish partners bribe the magistrates and smuggle the slaves into the markets in Havana.
The overall pacing of the book is executed perfectly. There is time for Jessie’s emotional developments but the action is also fairly brisk. The final length of the book is optimal; I never felt like I was slogging through this. The inclusion of the details of taking on slaves and their treatment (chucked over the rail still alive if fevered, etc.) is matter-of-fact and not overly sensationalized. The epilogue portion, which is only a page or two, is the only portion I would eliminate. It was unnecessary and drew the reader’s attention from the power of the main narrative.
Jessie’s emotional struggle is sympathetically depicted. At points, he hates the captives for making him work hard and because, without them, he would not have been shanghaied. However, he also feels great sympathy for them, particularly as the voyage progresses and the condition of everyone deteriorates. Jessie forms a connection with an African boy about his age. Only by working together do the two survive the shipwreck.
While not the most “fun” of the Newbery Medal books, I do feel that this is one of the most important ones for children to read. Many history books, especially for younger graders, pass over the brutal physical realities of the Middle Passage. This book presents an account that’s realistic without being gratuitously gory; it also deals well with the emotions of someone presented with injustice this stark. Jessie certainly isn’t a hero, and he struggles deeply with both his physical and mental reactions to the slaves. I read this book as a fairly young child (maybe 2nd grade?), and it made a deep impact, to the point where I wrote my own “book” where a friend and I were the slave dancers. I’ll spare you the hilariously horrible narrative and illustrations (I’m not, nor have ever been, a good 2-D artist), but just note that, even at an age where I may have missed subtleties of the moral dilemmas and mental wrangling that Jessie went through, the book was influential.