Sally’s Rating: 4/5
Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer is a tough read. The book touches on the horrors of the slave trade through the viewpoint of a 13-year-old boy who must survive on a ship filled with deceitful sailors and downtrodden slaves. Recruited for his musical ability, Jessie plays his fife in order to dance the slaves so they would remain strong and profitable for when they were finally sold.
As a young and curious boy, Jessie’s character at the beginning of the story doesn’t have much bias towards slavery because he has never been around them much before. Much of the story is him reacting as a blank slate to the controversial issues that arise, which makes him an easy character to sympathize with as he learns more and more about what is happening in the world. As a result, he wavers on his thoughts about what is right and what is wrong, but eventually the hellish horror of the voyage convinces him that he doesn’t particularly support slavery.
The tone of the novel was just right. For the majority of the book, the reader must bear witness to some horrific deaths and beatings. Nothing is particularly sugarcoated, and the facts of the novel are presented in a way that makes it seem like one is reading a historical account instead of fiction. While the ending did feel a bit whimsical and too happy for this type of tale, it’s satisfying to see how much the main character has been affected by the events of the novel. All actions had consequences – both good and bad.
With its challenging subject matter, it would be hard to recommend this novel as a light, fun read for a middle school child. I remember first reading this as a fifth grader as part of the curriculum, which I still believe is an appropriate age to be introduced to the issues brought up in this book. Without a doubt, The Slave Dancer is definitely one of the better historical fiction novels for children and deserves its place on the Newbery Medal list.