The Slave Dancer

Written by Paula Fox
Review by Juliet Waldron

This reissued Newbery Honor book tells what could easily be a true story. Beginning in 1839, thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier is on the bustling New Orleans docks playing his fife for pennies. He does this every day to help support his widowed mother and ailing sister. He’s not afraid of the rough sailors who surround him; his father, until he drowned, was one of them. One night, he is kidnapped and carried aboard The Moonlight, bound for Africa. The hard men on the ship set him to work learning what might have been his trade anyway, but this is a slave ship. On the return voyage, he will “dance” the slaves, who will be released for a short time each day from the hold where they are packed like sardines. This book does not turn away from the horrors of the trade. Jessie carries buckets of human waste from the filthy hold and witnesses disease and floggings. He learns how the sailors justify the horror in which they participate, and how the man who smiles the most can be the one who betrays you. This is an unshrinking look at a terrible chapter in our history, and at the horror of slavery, which even today still exists. The Slave Dancer is moving, harrowing, and, unfortunately, entirely believable.