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The Slave Dancer
Novel, 1973
American Writer ( 1923 - 2017 )
Novels for Students. Ed. Elizabeth Thomason. Vol. 12. Gale, 2001. p280-297. From Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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The Slave Dancer
Paula Fox


Paula Fox did not begin writing until 1962 when she was thirty-nine years old, but since then she has enjoyed critical acclaim and praise from the many readers of her books. She writes fiction for children and novels for adults, and of all her books, The Slave Dancer has been the most widely praised and recognized. The book tells the story of thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier, who in 1840 is kidnapped from his New Orleans home and forced to play his fife on a slave ship while the slaves are "danced," or exercised. The book won the Newbery Medal in 1974, and Fox has also won the Hans Christian Andersen medal for her work.

Despite this praise, the book has also been the subject of controversy. Some critics believed it was racist and that it portrayed slaves unfairly, as despairing, weak people unable to fight for themselves, and, indeed, as responsible for their own enslavement. In addition, several characters in the book are racists, and their language and attitudes offended some readers.

However, most reviewers agree that Fox has impeccable control of the English language; The Slave Dancer, like her other books, has been widely praised for the poetry of Fox's prose, her rich imagery, and her mythic storytelling, as well as her deft handling of a topic many people previously considered too horrific for children to read about.

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Author Biography

Paula Fox was born in New York City, on April 22, 1923. When Fox was five, her parents sent her to live with a minister and his bedridden mother in upstate New York while her parents traveled. They were busy with her father's career as a writer of plays and films and did not have time to raise her. The minister shared his love of reading, poetry, and history with her. At age five, she had her first experience with the thrill of writing when she suggested to the minister that he write a sermon about a waterfall, and he agreed. She told a New York Times writer, "I grasped … that everything could count, that a word, spoken as meant, contained in itself an energy capable of awakening imagination, thought, emotion."

When she was six, she moved to California for two years and then was sent to live with her grandmother on a sugar plantation in Cuba, where she went to school in a one-room schoolhouse and quickly learned to speak Spanish. Three years later, the revolution in Cuba forced her to leave, and she returned to New York City with her grandmother. By the time she was twelve, she had already attended nine different schools and hardly knew her parents. Of her parents, she told Sybil Steinberg in Publishers Weekly only that her mother was very young and was unable to take on the responsibility of a child. What she did know—and took strength from—was books. In every place she lived, except Cuba, there was a library, and Fox always found it.

Fox had to leave high school early, and she worked a wide variety of jobs, including salesperson, rivet-sorter, and machinist to support herself. When she was sixteen, she got a job in California, reading books for Warner Brothers, and when she was twenty-one, a lucky break led her to a job as a journalist in Poland. She eventually returned to Manhattan, married, and had two sons, but the marriage ended in divorce.

Despite her lack of formal education, Fox was accepted into Columbia University, and for almost four years, she studied, worked full time, and raised her sons until lack of money forced her to quit the school. She then took various teaching jobs and began to write. She told Steinberg that she had "an ineradicable tendency to tell stories and listen to them. Reading was everything to me."

Fox married again, and when her new husband won a Guggenheim award, they went to Greece where she wrote her first novel, Poor George,
Paula Fox

Paula Fox
which was accepted by Harcourt Brace. Thus began her prolific career as a writer of books for both children and adults. The Slave Dancer won the Newbery Medal, and her other books have won her a Newbery Honor, the American Book Award, and the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. She has also received awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the National Endowment of the Arts, as well as a Brandeis Fiction Citation.

Plot Summary

The Errand

Thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier, his widowed mother, and his sister live in a one-room home in a poor quarter of New Orleans in 1840. His mother makes a meager wage sewing dresses, and Jessie plays his fife to make a few pennies. He dreams of being rich someday, and although he is curious about the lives of slaves he sees, he is forbidden to visit the slave market and knows little about their daily existence. His mother tells him that despite his family's grinding poverty,

there were souls whose fates were so terrible in comparison to ours, that we should consider ourselves among the fortunate of the earth. I knew she was Page 282  |  Top of Articlethinking of the slaves who were sold daily so close to where we lived.

When his mother has to make a dress in a hurry, she sends Jessie out to his aunt's house to get some candles so she can stay up late to sew, but on the way home from this errand, two sailors who have seen him playing his fife kidnap him.

The Moonlight

Their ship is The Moonlight, a ship bound for Africa, under Captain Cawthorne, a man so brutal that when he meets Jessie, he bites Jessie's ear hard enough to draw blood. Captain Cawthorne tells Jessie that The Moonlight is a slave ship, involved in a "lucrative and God-granted trade," and that anyone who tries to interfere with it is a pirate. Jessie will play his fife to make the slaves "dance" once they are on board; this exercise will keep them strong and fit so that they will bring in more money when they are sold. In addition, he is expected to help around the ship.

Jessie meets Ned Spark, the ship's carpenter and occasional doctor, who professes to be a Christian but who will profit from the slave ship's voyage as much as the rest of the crew, including the ill-tempered cook; Nick Spark, the Mate, who is as cruel as the captain; and Ben Stout, who says he is sorry for Jessie's kidnapping, talks kindly to him, and gives him extra clothes and a piece of bread.

Once Jessie settles in, he notices that Purvis, who is a good sailor despite his rough manners and teasing sense of humor, is always busy, and he realizes that even though Purvis is one of the men who kidnapped him, he can trust him. Purvis tells Jessie that other ships will try and stop the slave ship from completing its journey. The British, who are against slavery, will board the ship and confiscate the slaves and the profits.

The Shrouds

Until now, Jessie has been confused by the crew, who defend the trade, saying that so many ships are involved in it that the laws against it don't matter. Claudius Sharkey, a crewmember, tells Jessie that in addition to the British cruisers that make the trade dangerous, American ships also patrol against importers of slaves. However, the possible profit from these voyages outweighs the danger: "He spread his arms as wide as he could to show me the money the smugglers made after they'd taken the slaves inland and sold them."

Although Ben Stout has been kind to him, Jessie doesn't trust him. Instead, he likes Purvis: "Purvis, with his horrible coarse jokes, his bawling and cursing, Purvis, whom I trusted."

One morning, at dawn, he sees a sailor sneaking forward on the ship, and returning with an egg—part of the captain's private food supply. He is not sure who the sailor is, and soon Purvis is named as the culprit, tied up by Ben Stout and another sailor, and brutally flogged and then hung from the rigging. Later, he finds out that Stout stole the egg, and was happy when Purvis was blamed. When he asks Purvis why he didn't deny being the thief, Purvis says, "The officers of this ship would not care what the truth was."

The Bight of Benin

When the ship arrives off the coast of Africa, all the preparations for taking on slaves are completed. They go up and down the coast, and the captain goes out at night in a small boat and deals with the African chiefs who are selling the slaves.

Jessie is sick of being on the ship, sick of what he learns about the slave trade, and when Purvis asks him to help set up a tarp to provide shade for the slaves when they eat their meals, he refuses: "nearly senseless with rage…. I considered casting myself over the side and confounding them all!" But he gives in because he believes that no one on the ship would save him, and he would die. "I went slowly toward Purvis, feeling a shame I'd never felt before," he says.

Later, when he protests against the slave trade, Purvis becomes violently angry, and tells Jessie that his own Irish ancestors came to America in ships no better than the slave ships—"locked up in a hold for the whole voyage where they might have died of sickness and suffocation…. Do you know my father was haunted all his days by the memory of those who died before his eyes in that ship, and were flung into the sea? And you dare speak of my parents in the same breath with these [slaves]!

Jessie wonders how Purvis can be so angry about the conditions his parents traveled under, and at the same time fail to see how it's wrong to treat the slaves like this. But Jessie realizes that he can't talk to any of the crew about this; whenever he is upset about slavery, he is beaten.

The slaves arrive. Two of them die, Jessie notes, "and Stout dumped their bodies over the side as I dumped waste." Then a little girl dies and is tossed over the same way. Jessie is horrified, and his punishment when the sailors notice it is observed by one of the slaves, a young boy the same age as Jessie. An instant, unspoken bond forms be-Page 283  |  Top of Articletween Jessie and the young slave boy though they don't speak the same language.

Nicholas Spark Walks on Water

They set sail, back toward America. Every other day, groups of slaves are brought on deck where Jessie plays the fife and Stout whips them to make them "dance," or exercise. He is filled with self-loathing, and also, to his horror, he realizes that he hates the slaves, the symbol of his own slavery on the ship.

I hated their shuffling, their howling, their very suffering!" he says. "I hated the way they spat out their food upon the deck, the overflowing buckets, the emptying of which tried all my strength…. I would have snatched the rope from Spark's hand and beaten them myself! Oh, God! I wished them all dead! Not to hear them! Not to smell them! Not to know of their existence!

He drops his fife on the deck and runs to his sleeping quarters, but he is brought back to the deck and flogged by Stout for his disobedience.

But as the blows fell," he says, "I became myself again. I was a thirteen-year-old male, not as tall as, though somewhat heavier than, a boy close to my own age, now doubled up in the dark below, not a dozen yards from where I was being beaten.

The beating changes him, makes him more aware; he observes the sailors "with as little pity as they observed the blacks." He feels pity for the slaves, realizing he is in the same position as they: all of them are on the ship against their will. He says, "I hated what I did [playing the fife]. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that, at least, it gave them time out of the hold. But what was the point of that or anything else?"

As the ship travels on, discipline degenerates; the ship is filthy, the men are filthy and are often drunk. Jessie separates himself from them, stepping away mentally, remembering every object in his home, dissociating himself from the horrible present. During this time, he becomes aware that the slave boy is watching him every time he is on deck. He points to himself with the fife, saying his name: "Jessie."

When a slave attacks the mate, Nicholas Spark, Spark guns him down and is immediately bound with a rope and thrown overboard: by killing the African man, he has destroyed the profit that would come from selling him, and Spark's own life is not worth that much. "Don't you see?" Purvis asks, "There went the profit!"

The Spaniard

By this time, the slaves are all sick, and so are most of the crew. Stout is still trying to make friends with Jessie, who ignores him. To get revenge, Stout steals Jessie's fife and tosses it into the hold where Jessie must walk over the bodies of the slaves to look for it—or be flogged if he doesn't find it. The young slave boy finds it and hands it to Jessie, saving him from the horrendous task and the punishment.

They reach the coast of Cuba, and Captain Cawthorne begins bargaining with a Spaniard to sell the slaves. On the following day, they will be unloaded and sold.

Ben Stout's Mistake

The sailors arrange a party, bringing out rum and chests of clothes, dressing up the slaves like women, and getting drunk. Jessie is ordered to play his fife while the sailors dance and slap the slaves around. A sail appears, indicating a ship is approaching. Stout claims that he knows it, and it won't har4m them. Cawthorne, who doesn't believe him and thinks the ship is a threat, orders all the slaves and the evidence of slavery to be thrown over the side, and the sailors begin tossing men, women, and children over the rail. Cawthorne, believing the ship is English, hoists the American flag, and, too late, realizes the ship is American.

The other ship approaches and a battle ensues, perceived only dimly by Jessie, who is in mortal terror. At the same time, a storm breaks over both vessels. Jessie grabs the young slave boy, and both of them crawl to the hold where they hide. While they are down there, a sailor up above closes the hatch, which is always closed in storms.

They remain trapped for several days during the storm. Finally, they hear a violent crash: the ship has run aground. The hatch cover falls away, and they crawl out, finding everyone dead except Captain Cawthorne, who is dying, the slaves gone, and the ship wrecked. Land is nearby, and they swim to it.

The Old Man

The two boys are taken in by an old man, an escaped slave who lives deep in the woods of Mississippi. He feeds them and helps them regain their strength, and he arranges for others to take the slave boy, whose name is Ras, north where he can be free. He tells Jessie how to walk the three-day journey back to New Orleans and asks him not to tell any-Page 284  |  Top of Articleone because if Jessie tells anyone about the old man, he may be recaptured and taken back to slavery.

Home and After

Jessie walks home and finds his mother and sister, but he doesn't settle easily back into his old life. He has lost his old dreams of becoming rich since he does not want to do anything that is connected in any way with slavery. He has discovered that "everything I considered bore, somewhere along the way, the imprint of black hands." Eventually, he decides to become an apothecary—the 1840s equivalent of a pharmacist—and moves to Rhode Island where there are no slaves. He sends for his mother and sister and lives a quiet life. He misses the South, and for the rest of his life, he wonders what happened to Ras, but he never finds out. When the Civil War breaks out, he fights on the Northern side.

As the years pass, the horror of the voyage recedes in his consciousness, and he doesn't think about it every day. He marries and has a family. One thing, however, remains from the voyage: he cannot stand the sound of music because it reminds him of dancing the slaves:

For at the first note of a tune or a song, I would see once again as though they'd never ceased their dancing in my mind, black men and women and children lifting their tormented limbs in time to a reedy martial air, the dust rising from their joyless thumping, the sound of the fife finally drowned beneath the clanging of their chains.


Agatha Bollier

Agatha is Jessie's aunt (the sister of his father) and is more well-to-do than the Bolliers. They turn to her in times of trouble, asking for small things, such as extra candles so that Jessie's mother can stay up late working on dresses. Since Jessie's father's death, Agatha has been irritable and withdrawn, and she is also fussy and demanding, telling Jessie how to walk and warning him not to be clumsy with her furniture whenever he enters her house. Jessie says, "I had no other memory of Aunt Agatha except as a woman who especially disliked me." Agatha dislikes the fact that Jessie makes a living playing the fife and tells him he should be apprenticed and learn a respectable trade, saying that she doubts he would gain any benefit from school. However, she is generous with her candles and other gifts, and although Fox never says this directly, the reader senses that Agatha does care about Jessie; She wants his life to be better than it is but can't express this wish in a positive way. When Jessie eventually returns from his long and harrowing journey, she treats Jessie with affection and kindness and no longer accuses him of being a "bayou lout."

Betty Bollier

Betty is Jessie's sister. She is four years younger than he and has little part in the story. She is quiet and kind, and he thinks of her often during the voyage. When he comes back, she is even nicer to him, treating him like an invalid. When he moves to Rhode Island, he sends for her and his mother and takes care of both of them financially.

Jessie Bollier

Thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier makes a few pennies each day by playing his fife in the rougher districts of 1840s New Orleans. He, his mother, and his young sister Betty are very poor, and they own almost nothing, living in a single damp room on Pirate's Alley where his mother works as a seam-stress for the wealthy women of New Orleans.

Until this point, Jessie has largely been protected from experiencing the horrors of slavery because his family is too poor to own slaves and because his mother has forbidden him to loiter near the slave market. He dreams of being rich one day, "in a fine suit, with a thousand candles to hand if I needed them instead of three grudgingly given stubs. I imagined the splendid house I would live in, my gardens, my carriage and horses." He is intrigued by the slaves he sees, curious about their lives.

In January of 1840, while he is walking along daydreaming, Jessie is abducted by sailors who have seen him playing his fife. They carry him off to a slave ship called the Moonlight, and tell him that after the ship reaches Africa and they take on slaves, his job will be to play for the slaves so that they will "dance" and thus keep themselves strong, fit, and profitable.

The voyage is a living hell for Jessie, who sees the slaves treated worse than animals and who finds depths of ugliness within himself that he never dreamed existed. Forced to have his whole existence revolve around the slaves, he is shocked to find himself hating them, hating the entire ship's crew, hating himself. He sees men, women, and children die, sees them thrown over the side of the ship, and sees the crewmembers mercilessly flogged. When the ship is overtaken by an Ameri-Page 285  |  Top of Articlecan anti-slavery vessel, the crew begins throwing the slaves overboard, but at the same time, a ferocious storm hits. Jessie and a slave boy, Ras, go hide in the hold, and the two of them become friends. When the ship founders on a reef, everyone but Jessie and Ras dies. They make their way to shore and are taken in by an escaped slave, Daniel, who tells Jessie how to walk back to New Orleans, three days' journey away.

Later, Jessie's earlier dreams of becoming rich have been tempered by reality as he realizes that all the wealth he saw around him was either the result of slaves' work or was somehow connected with the slave trade because slavery is so deeply ingrained in his culture. He eventually is apprenticed to an apothecary and moves to Rhode Island where there is no slavery and brings his mother and sister there, too. Despite his new life, he is still homesick for the South—the Mississippi, the tropical smells—and for his friend Ras, whom he never sees again.

During the Civil War, he fights for the North and spends some time in a horrendous prisoner-of-war camp, which he survives, he believes, because he was prepared for its horrors on the Moonlight.

Eventually, he largely forgets his terrible voyage; he has a family and a peaceful life, except for one legacy of that trip that remains: for the rest of his life, he cannot stand hearing music because it reminds him of the slaves' tormented dancing.

Mrs. Bollier

Mrs. Bollier is Jessie's mother, a young widow who was originally from Massachusetts. She makes her living by sewing dresses for the wealthy ladies of New Orleans. One of the only beautiful things in their one-room home is her wooden sewing box, which has a winged fish carved on the top and beside which sits her basket of spools of bright thread. Jessie says, "By candlelight, the warmth of the colors made me think the thread would throw off a perfume like a garden of flowers." Sometimes, their home is filled with her work—rich swathes of damask or silk. She is harried and worried, always struggling to make enough money to feed her children. Even after Jessie returns from his voyage, his mother still sometimes weeps at the thought of what he has been through and at the thought of what happened to the slaves. Perhaps because of her Northern upbringing, she is against slavery. She warns Jessie to stay away from the market where slaves are sold and is shocked to hear of a slave called Star by her owner: "It's not a human name," she says.

Captain Cawthorne

Captain of the Moonlight, he is a ruthless man with a capricious temper, who, when he first meets Jessie, picks him up and bites his ear hard enough to draw blood, as a sort of warning about who's boss on the ship. His crew is afraid of him, although they know that on other ships there are captains who are worse. He lives in relative luxury on the ship, with private quarters, good food, and plenty of water, when the others do without, and he does not hesitate to flog Purvis when he is accused of stealing an egg from the captain's hen. He is single-mindedly devoted to profit and despises the anti-slavery British ships that run down slavers and confiscate their slaves and their profits. He also despises the African chiefs who sell their own people to the slavers. Eventually, Jessie realizes, "I was on a ship engaged in an illegal venture, and Captain Cawthorne was no better than a pirate."

Adolph Curry

Adolph is the ship's cook. Jessie describes him as "the thinnest man I'd ever seen…. His skin was the color of suet except for uneven salmon-colored patches along the prominent ridges of his cheekbones." He is in a perpetual bad temper, and Purvis explains that this is habitual with ships' cooks: "It's the smoke that maddens them, and whatever good humor they start with is fried to a crisp by the head."


Daniel is an escaped slave who has found a safe haven deep in the woods near the coast of Mississippi. When Jessie and Ras swim to shore, he finds them, takes them in, and takes care of them until they are strong enough to leave. Although it is dangerous for him to shelter Jessie since Jessie is white and may tell others where he is, Daniel treats him kindly and trusts him to keep his secret. Daniel is resourceful, living entirely on the produce of his small garden and a few farm animals. Daniel arranges for friendly people to take Ras north where he can be free and tells Jessie the route back to New Orleans, three days' walk away. He gives him food for the journey and wishes him safe travel. As Jessie says, "Daniel had saved my life. I couldn't expect more than that."

Ned Grime

Grime is an older man who serves as the ship's carpenter (and, occasionally, the surgeon). He is not a sailor and knows little about running the ship. He holds himself apart from the crew, "as if he lived a mile from the earth and had nothing to do with the Page 286  |  Top of Articleidot carryings on of the human rce," Jessie say. He is against taking boys and men on as sailors agaist their will, and he is religious and talks about the evils of slavery, saying "It's all the Devil's work,"but Jessie stoops listening when he finds out that like all the crew, Grime will eventually profit from the voyage. When Ned says of slavery, "My heart's not in it", Jessie says, "I wondered about his hear, imagining it to be something like one of the raisins Curry used slip into the plum duff."

Jessie's Father

Jessie's father died when Jessie was four. He worked on a snagboat, which cleared away the tree stumps and other debris that blocked steamboat navigation on the river. His small boat was caught by a current, he lost his balance, fell, and was sucked underwater before anyone could help him. He appears in Jessie's dreams, mostly as a voice crying, "Oh, swim!" and Jessie still grieves his loss.

Clay Purvis

Purvis is an Irishman and one of the two sailors who abduct Jessie and carry him off to the Moonlight. Purvis has seen Jessie playing his fife in the market earlier and has even given him money. "Don't you remember a man who gave you money?" he asks Jessie. "I'm about to do even more for you. I'm going to take you on a fine sea voyage." Purvis is a big, rough man with a mocking sense of humor, and though he is uneducated and loutish, he has a soft spot for Jessie, disguised under his rough treatment of him. For example, one day when Jessie begins to cry with homesickness, Purvis picks him up, shakes him, and threatens to hang him up in the rigging—in an attempt to take his mind off it. He is a good sailor, never idle, skilled at many tasks on board, and a good teller of sea tales. When Ben Stout steals an egg from the captain's private supply, Purvis is blamed and takes the flogging that results without protest.

Purvis is a man of his time, and he does not have much sympathy for the slaves, regarding them as less than human and noting that his own Irish ancestors crossed the sea in conditions just as bad as theirs. When Jessie shows any sympathy for the slaves, Purvis is enraged, as if sympathy for them somehow lessens his ancestors' suffering. He asks Jessie, "Do you know my father was haunted all his days by the memory of those who died before his eyes in that ship, and were flung into the sea? And you dare speak of my parents in the same breath with these [slaves]!" Jessie rightly thinks it's senseless of Purvis to protest how his parents were treated but not to object to the same treatment when it is applied to Africans, but he can never talk sense into Purvis about this topic. Despite this, he trusts Purvis over Ben Stout. "It was Purvis whom I was eager to see when I woke up in the morning," he says, "Purvis with his horrible coarse jokes, his bawling and cursing, Purvis whom I trusted."


Ras is a slave boy on the ship who is fascinated by Jessie. Jessie is also intrigued by him because they are the same age and they are both on the ship against their will. When Stout throws overboard a young slave girl who has died, Jessie cries out, and Ned Sharkey smacks him so hard he falls down. Jessie says, "When I got up, I saw a boy close to my own age, staring at me from among the group of silent slaves squatting beneath the tarpaulin. I could not read his expression." When the two of them are the only survivors of a raid and shipwreck of the Moonlight, they are taken in by an escaped slave, and Ras is thrilled, thinking he has found a piece of home until he realizes the old man is wearing white people's clothes. Eventually, Daniel, the escaped slave, helps Ras escape, too, sending him to the North with allies.

Claudius Sharkey

Sharkey is the other sailor involved in Jessie's abduction. He explains the facts of the slave trade to Jessie: that British cruisers made it dangerous by watching out for illegal American slavers, pursuing them, confiscating their cargo, and arresting their crews. The trade was also made dangerous by American ships that patrolled, looking for privateers like the Moonlight.

Nicholas Spark

Spark is the Mate, who, Jessie says, "kept to the Captain's side like a shadow. He had a brooding look on his face, and when he spoke, his voice sizzled like a hot poker plunged into water." He does whatever the Captain orders, usually brutally. Although he is obviously evil, Jessie finds that he is easier to deal with than someone like Stout, whose evil is hidden at first.

Benjamin Stout

At first, Ben Stout appears to be trustworthy; the first thing he says to Jessie is, "I'm sorry for what's been done to you." Unlike the other sailors, he is quiet and polite. Like Jessie, he was forced to become a sailor but eventually came to like it and quickly becomes bored and restless on land. He Page 287  |  Top of Articletakes Jessie in hand, shows him around the ship, and gives him clothes to wear, as well as a chunk of bread, and tells him what chores to do. Other than Purvis, he is the only crewmember who takes much notice of Jessie at all. Although he seems kind, this is only a thin veneer over an untrustworthy and sly heart: Stout steals an egg, blames Purvis, and then, at the Captain's orders, assists in flogging Purvis for the crime Stout did. He speaks the slaves' language and talks softly to them, saying things that Jessie cannot understand but which seem to drive the slaves mad with fear or sadness. He seems to take pleasure in tormenting people in this subtle, sly way. Jessie stops trusting him and regards him with deep mistrust and fear. Stout is bothered by this since he wants to influence Jessie. "I've been so good to you," he says. "I don't understand your ingratitude. They've all talked against me. I suppose that accounts for it." Jessie does not answer him. Purvis later tells Jessie, "He is dead. He's been dead for years." He tells Jessie there is someone like him on almost every ship: someone spiritually, morally dead, "and no one's the wiser until two weeks at sea when one of the crew says to another, 'Ain't he dead? That one over there by the helm?' and the other says, 'Just what I was thinking—we've got a dead man on the ship.'" When Jessie won't speak to him, Stout steals his fife and drops it in the hold where Jessie has to scramble over the bodies of the slaves to look for it, or else be punished by the captain for losing it. The slave boy, Ras, finds it and hands it to him.


Freedom and Imprisonment

From the very beginning of The Slave Dancer, themes of imprisonment and escape run through the book. In the opening chapter, Jessie and his family live in one tiny room, little more than a cell, with a few meager possessions, and Jessie feels crowded there, particularly in bad weather: "I hated the fog," he says. "It made me a prisoner." When he visits his Aunt Agatha to ask for a few candles, he is ordered about like a prisoner: "'Don't walk there!' she would cry. 'Take your huge feet off that carpet! Watch the chair—it'll fall!"

Soon after this visit to his aunt, Jessie is captured and taken to the slave ship—a fate that will soon be paralleled in the fates of the slaves he must play his fife for. Like them, he is beaten; like them, he eats horrible food; like them, he has no option for escape other than jumping over the side and drowning. However, no matter how much he suffers, their suffering is always worse, a fact of which he is always aware.

The sailor Purvis, whose parents came from Ireland under conditions similar to those of the slaves, resents any pity Jessie feels for the slaves, because somehow, to him, it dishonors his parents' suffering when anyone cares about how the Africans are treated.

Jessie's physical imprisonment is bad enough, but Fox also shows how he becomes mentally imprisoned—how, from feeling sorry for the slaves, Jessie enters a time when he hates them—for they are the reason he was taken from his home, the reason for his own servitude on the ship. Also, as David Rees noted in The Marble in the Water, Jessie, after being abused by the crew, briefly becomes one of them, one of the abusers. He is only woken from this terrible state of mind by a beating.

Although the sailors are technically free men, they are not mentally free: limited by their lack of education and their brutally difficult lives, they can only muster up compassion for the slaves for a short time, and only when the voyage is going well. Some, such as Nicholas Spark and Ben Stout, never do; Stout is described as "dead," in an emotional or spiritual sense, and Jessie says that Spark is "entirely brainless and evil only in the way that certain plants are poisonous": he is mindlessly, ruthlessly evil, not even human.

Even after Jessie returns home, he is never completely free again. He has been deeply marked by his experiences and they shape everything he does, from his choice of a career, to his decision to move to Rhode Island, and his fighting for the North in the Civil War. He is never truly carefree again: for the rest of his life, he cannot bear to listen to music because it brings up memories of the slaves' suffering.

The only truly free person in the book is, ironically, Daniel, the escaped slave who has created a small farmstead deep in the Mississippi forest. However, his freedom is precarious: if anyone finds him, or even if Jessie tells anyone about him, he may be recaptured and forced into slavery again. Interestingly, Daniel constantly risks his hard-won freedom: the book implies that he is involved with the Underground Railroad and has a network of contacts who lead slaves to freedom.

Hypocrisy Versus Integrity

Jessie's mother is religious, and she warns him to stay away from the slave market and from tav-Page 288  |  Top of Articleerns. She is also aware that no matter how poor she and her family are, "there were souls whose fates were so terrible in comparison to ours, that we should consider ourselves among the fortunate of the earth," meaning the slaves.

Purvis tells Jessie a story of a captain of a slave ship that started out with 500 slaves and 30 crewmembers, and ended with 183 slaves and 11 crewmembers alive; most were killed by disease, some by violence.

The Captain took his Bible and left that ship—and the sea. I've heard tales that he's a walking preacher now, goes to towns and villages and gets up on a box and tells people the world is going to end any day and if there ain't no people he tells the trees and the stones." This story parallels the real life of John Newton, a slave ship captain who quit his work, became a preacher, and wrote the well-known hymn "Amazing Grace."

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Topics For Further Study

  • Create a map and draw the route that Jessie took from his kidnapping in New Orleans to Africa and then to the shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico and his walk home to New Orleans. Also, calculate how many miles Jessie traveled.
  • Jessie and Ras feel very close to each other even though they don't speak the same language. Many years later, Jessie is still looking for Ras and hoping that someday he will see him. Why do you think this is the case? How did the boys communicate with each other on the ship, during the shipwreck, and at Daniel's house?
  • In the book, the slaves on board The Moonlight do not rebel against their captors. However, on a real ship named the Amistad in 1839, the slaves did rebel under the leadership of a slave named Cinque and took control of the ship for some time until it landed in Long Island. Research the Amistad uprising and compare and contrast it to events in The Slave Dancer. What eventually happened to the slaves on the Amistad?
  • Jessie spends three days and nights walking alone through the woods from Mississippi to New Orleans. If you were hiking alone in the woods for that time, what would you need to survive? Jessie had very little. What is the smallest amount of food and gear that you think you would need to survive? What would you be most afraid of and why?
  • Ras is sent north with friends of Daniel's, presumably to freedom. Jessie looks for him but never finds him. What do you think happened to Ras? Write a story telling what his life was like, starting from the time he left Daniel's hut in the forests of Mississippi.
  • In New Orleans in 1840, poor children were expected to work. If you lived in 1840 and had to work at age thirteen, what work could you have done to help your family survive?
  • In Interracial Books for Children, Binnie Tate wrote that "through the characters' words, [Fox] excuses the captors and places the blame for the slaves' captivity on Africans themselves. The author slowly and systematically excuses all the whites in the story for their participation in the slave venture and by innuendo places the blame elsewhere." Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

However, there are more hypocrites than truly religious people in the book. Like Jessie's mother and the reformed captain, Ned Grime, the ship's carpenter, professes to be religious. However, he holds himself aloof from the rest of the crew, and talks "as if he lived a mile from the earth and had nothing to do with the idiot carryings on of the human race." He has a chilly view of God, stating, "God has no wish to share his secrets with Adam's descendants." When Purvis is flogged and Jessie, upset, leans against Ned, Ned not only does not console him, but also "made not the slightest accommodation of his body to my weight," Jessie says. Ned talks about religion often, but when Jessie discovers that he will make just as much Page 289  |  Top of Articleprofit as the rest of the crew from the voyage, he discounts him.

Captain Cawthorne, who is in charge of the slave ship, mentions in the same breath that the slave trade is both "lucrative and God-given," and the sailors justify it by saying that everyone else is doing it. So many ships are transporting slaves that the laws against such transport are meaningless.

In fact, the book implies that most people are hypocrites as bad as Cawthorne, if not as obvious, and that, as Jessie realizes later, almost every job, profession, or source of income available is connected in some way with the transport, sale, or labor of slaves. Almost everyone, no matter what he or she does, is living off slave labor, however distantly. With this realization, the book becomes an indictment of almost everyone in white society. As David Rees wrote in The Marble in the Water, "It is a savage indictment of a whole society, intensely political in its overtones which ring down through the ages to the present day."


Poetic Prose

"The distinction and beauty of the words she uses and her absolute command of subtlety and nuance in rhythms and sentence structure place Paula Fox above almost all other children's writers," Rees states in his book. Other critics agree: Fox's use of language has brought her the Newbery Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and recognition in both the United States and England. Fox's prose is spare but poetic, filled with rich imagery grounded in intense physical detail, rhythm, and cadence. For example, when Jessie is captured and taken by a small boat to the ship, Fox writes:

We passed a small island. I saw the glimmer of a light in a window—only that solitary, flickering yellow beacon. I felt helpless and sad as though everyone in the world had died save the three of us and the unknown lamplighter on the shore. Then, as if daylight was being born inside the boat itself, I began to make out piles of rope, a wooden bucket, a heap of rusty looking net, the thick boots of my captors.

In passages like these, Fox juxtaposes accurately drawn emotion with exact detail of place, time, and people, making the events—and the emotions—seem absolutely real.

Emotional Accuracy

Throughout the book, Fox describes Jessie's mixed emotions with stunning clarity, even when they are shocking in their intensity and negativity, or when they are not what the reader expects. Soon after he is captured, Jessie experiences a surge of happiness as the ship speeds on, and even he is surprised by this. "When I remembered the wretchedness of my situation, I wondered if there was something about a ship that makes men glide from one state of mind to another as the ship cuts through water."

Later, forced to play for the slaves, forced to be a part of their suffering, he is shocked to find that he hates them—hates their shackled shuffling, their groaning, hates their suffering—and hates himself for hating them. Because the sailors have abused him, he now takes it out on them, seeing them as the cause of his captivity on the ship. Although this state of mind is short-lived, and ends when Jessie himself is beaten, Fox does not shy away from depicting it. Like other people in intolerable situations, Jessie develops the ability to mentally retreat from the situation: "I found a kind of freedom in my mind, I found how to be in another place." However, unlike Ned Grime, the hypocritical carpenter, he can't sustain this, and is soon slapped back to reality and to awareness of his place in the tormenting of the slaves.

When Jessie and Ras are rescued by Daniel, the escaped slave, Fox shows Jessie's wistful desire to be as close to Daniel as Ras is, and his awareness that because he is white, Daniel will never trust him in the same way.

Long after the voyage and for the rest of his life in Rhode Island, Jessie is marked by the experience, like all people who have been through intense suffering. Although outwardly he is like his neighbors, inwardly he retains the memory of the short voyage, and he can never enjoy music as he did when he was still a child.

First Person

The book is told in first person—an excellent choice since the reader can "hear" Jessie telling his story, and it seems far more alive and realistic than if the same story was were told in third-person. Like the spellbinding sea stories Purvis tells, readers are right there in the story with Jessie as he describes the ship, the crew, the slaves, and the horrifying events. By the end of the book, the reader knows Jessie intimately: he has shared every thought and feeling as honestly as if he were in the same room Page 290  |  Top of Articlewith the reader, confessing the terrible story that has weighed on his mind for most of his life.

Historical Context

The Slave Trade

Paula Fox is a contemporary writer, but The Slave Dancer is set in 1840, in New Orleans, and on the slave ship The Moonlight. Fox brings this time to life through Jessie's eyes: the reader learns that although it was illegal to import slaves from Africa, this trade went on, and that the sale of American-born slaves was open and accepted. As a World Book article on the trade noted, by the early 1800s, more than 700,000 slaves lived in the southern United States, and by 1860, there were about four million slaves in these states. Although Jessie's family is too poor to own slaves, he sees them in the streets and in the homes of the wealthy, and it is understood that anyone who has any money owns servants, and that most occupations are directly or indirectly related to the work of slaves. Until Jessie sees the truth about slavery, it doesn't occur to him to question whether this is right or wrong—it's just the way things are in his time and place. Attitudes toward people of African descent were also affected by the common racist conviction among whites, as Jessie notes, that "the least of them was better than any black alive."

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Compare & Contrast

  • 1840s: Slavery is legal in the southern part of the United States, and African Americans have no rights.

    Today: African Americans are legally entitled to all the same rights as other Americans, although American society is still struggling against racism.
  • 1840s: It takes a ship four months to travel from North America to Africa and back, and the journey is extremely hazardous.

    Today: Airplanes can safely make the trip from North America to Africa and back in just a matter of hours.
  • 1840s: Children are not required to attend school, but they are expected to work to help their families make a living, and they often work long hours.

    Today: Child labor is against the law, and all children must attend school.
  • 1840s: The area around New Orleans is forest, farms, and swamps. Jessie could walk toward the city for three days and see almost no people and few signs of human habitation.

    Today: Large-scale urban growth and development of highways have made wilderness like the one Jessie walks through increasingly rare, especially around large cities such as New Orleans.

Because the sole motive of the slave trade was profit, some captains of slave ships tried to pack as many people as possible into their ships and transport them for the lowest possible cost. Others believed in "loose packing"; they did not take on as many slaves, and allowed them more room on the ship, hoping that this would cut down on sickness and death among the captives. (In the book, Captain Cawthorne is called "a tight packer" by his crew.) On all ships, the slaves were kept chained in the hold at all times except when they were brought on deck to exercise. This crowding, and the complete lack of any sanitary facilities, led to disease and death on all slave ships, whether tightly or loosely packed. The slave trade across the Atlantic, between the Americas and Africa, lasted from the 1500s to the mid-1800s, and although no one knows for sure how many Africans were taken from their homeland, most sources estimate that around 10 million people were transported, according to the World Book.

Page 291  |  Top of Article

Group of slaves being herded onto a ship by British soldiers

Group of slaves being herded onto a ship by British soldiers

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was not a railroad, and it was not underground. It was a network of people who helped slaves escape and find freedom in the northern United States and in Canada where slavery was illegal. The slaves traveled mostly at night, on foot or any other way they could, and hid during the day in secret places or in the homes and buildings of anti-slavery activists. Because running away and helping slaves to run away was illegal in the South, people involved in this mission used code words, often from the railroad, so that others would not know what they were doing. For example, the people who helped the slaves were called "conductors," and the hiding places were called "stations." In The Slave Dancer, Daniel, and the two men who come to help Ras to escape, are conductors. Because their work endangers them, they are concerned that Jessie might tell others about them.

The Underground Railroad mainly operated from 1830 until the 1860s and helped many thousands of people escape from slavery. Although these people made it to the North, some were recaptured by slave hunters and taken back to the South. Because of this, many people fled even to Canada, particularly Ontario, where they were safer. In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed a fugitive slave law against returning escaped slaves to bondage.

The most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, who had run away from slavery. Not content with finding her own freedom, she returned to the South 19 times and helped about 300 people to escape.

Sailors' Hard Lives

As Fox makes clear, it was common for men and boys to be "pressed," or kidnapped, onto ships to become sailors as Jessie is. Benjamin Stout confides, "I was pressed too, although when I was older than you, and for a much longer voyage than this will be." Taken against their will, these sailors served under the iron command of captains who, like Cawthorne, used violence and punishment to enforce discipline on board their ships. Being a sailor was a dangerous occupation: death from illness and shipwreck was common, and for slavers, so was the threat of prosecution by British or American forces if they were caught.

Critical Overview

A Widely Praised Writer

Paula Fox has been praised by many critics for the beauty, clarity, authority, and subtle poetry of her prose, as well as the depth of her ideas and her execution of them in fiction. The Slave Dancer is Page 292  |  Top of Articlegenerally considered one of her finest works. For example, John Rowe Townsend wrote in A Sounding of Storytellers that The Slave Dancer "is a historical novel of weight and intensity which stands on its own, at a distance from [Fox's] other books," and called the book her "finest achievement."

Controversy Over the Book

Although the book has been widely praised, some critics have objected to it, claiming that it is racist. In Interracial Books for Children, Binnie Tate wrote that:

through the characters' words, [Fox] excuses the captors and places the blame for the slaves' captivity on Africans themselves. The author slowly and systematically excuses all the whites in the story for their participation in the slave venture and by innuendo places the blame elsewhere.

Binnie Tate, quoted in Cultural Conformity in Books for Children, wrote that the book "perpetuates racism … [with] constantly repeated racist implications and negative illusions," and in the same volume, Sharon Bell Mathis called the book "an insult to black children."

In the case of The Slave Dancer, some have objected to the fact that the slaves are portrayed as nonresistant, demoralized, nameless victims. However, Hamida Bosmajian wrote about this namelessness in Nightmares of History, commenting that "both the point of view of the novel and the circumstances of history make it impossible to name the slaves. Only after the shipwreck can Jessie exchange names with Ras, the sole black survivor."

Controversy over the novel's possible racist undertones extended to the ceremony in which Fox received the Newbery Award for the book where there were demonstrations against the book. Fox was shaken by this news but gave her speech; afterward, some of the demonstrators came up to her and let her know that she was "forgiven."

Emotionally Accurate

In Nightmares of History, Hamida Bosmajian wrote that Fox "is accurate in portraying the psychology of human beings in extreme situations," referring to the changing and conflicting emotions Jessie experiences, from apathy to rage to detachment, and even occasional happiness. Bosmajian, who analyzed books dealing with historical traumatic events and their survivors, noted that in these situations, people often do not behave admirably, or as we would like them to behave. Bosmajian also wrote that we

would like our children to sing songs of innocence, but it is difficult to delude children who have intimations of nuclear war. By breaking with the convictions of children's literature, [books such as The Slave Dancer] open spaces or blanks for the young readers' thoughts.

Uncompromising Moral Integrity

In an essay in Horn Book, Alice Bach described The Slave Dancer as "one of the finest examples of a writer's control over her material…. With an underplayed implicit sense of rage, Paula Fox exposes the men who dealt in selling human beings." In the New Statesman, Kevin Crossley-Holland wrote that the book is "a novel of great moral integrity…. From start to finish … Fox tells her story quietly and economically; she is candid but she never wallows." And Bob Dixon, in Catching Them Young: Sex, Race and Class in Children's Fiction, praised the book as "a novel of great horror and as great humanity … [approaching] perfection as a work of art."

Bach also wrote that what sets Fox apart from other writers

who are knocking out books as fast as kids can swallow them, is her uncompromising integrity. Fox is nobody's mouthpiece. Her unique vision admits to the child what he already suspects: Life is part grit, part disappointment, part nonsense, and occasionally victory … And by offering children no more than the humanness we all share—child, adult, reader, writer—she acknowledges them as equals.

David Rees wrote in The Marble in the Water that

the way [Fox] constructs her plots and the way she uses the English language make her second to none. And in The Slave Dancer, she has given us a masterpiece, the equal of which would be hard to find.


Kelly Winters

Winters is a freelance writer and editor who has written for a wide variety of academic and educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses themes of truth and moral questions in Fox's story.

As John Rowe Townsend pointed out in A Sounding of Storytellers, children's literature in the 1950s and early 1960s tended to promote a gentle, reassuring view of children, their families, and their role in society. He wrote, "Childhood was part of a continuing pattern—the orderly succession of the generations—and [in the accepted view] children Page 293  |  Top of Articlewere growing up to take their place in a known and understood world." By the late 1960s, however, people were becoming aware that this notion of childhood as a safe, protected time was just that—a notion—and it did not reflect the reality of children's lives. Children, like adults, suffer, experience trauma, and live through conflicting emotions about events they cannot control or justify.

As Townsend noted, Fox was one of the first writers to wake up to this reality. He wrote that she "was one of the small number of writers who brought quick sharp perceptions to the new and in many ways uneasy scene, and also an instinctive sympathy for the young who … had to deal with it." In her early works, children and adults fail to understand each other: there is no cozy bond between the generations. In The Slave Dancer, Fox takes a larger step and looks at a terrifying time in human history through the eyes of a boy who, like the slaves, is taken captive and experiences the horrendous reality of The Moonlight. Even worse, he must help others mistreat the slaves, using his gift for music as an instrument of torment. As Townsend wrote, the presence of a child in this setting is an alarming and awakening touch of truth. In The Slave Dancer,

The 'young eye at the centre' is no mere convention of the adventure story for children; it is the one perspective from which the witnessing of dreadful events can be fully and freshly experienced, and at the same time the moral burden be made clear.

Some reviewers have questioned whether this exposure to horrendous events is appropriate for children and whether books like The Slave Dancer can be considered children's literature, despite the presence of the "young eye at the center." In her essay, "Nightmares of History," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Hamida Bosmajian wrote that such books not only can but should be included in the canon of writing for young people. Bosmajian wrote that for children who are personally experiencing trauma such books can have "therapeutic value" and can "raise the consciousness of youngsters whose environment is stable."

As Bosmajian points out, historical "nightmares" created by adults, such as the Nazi Holocaust, nuclear war, or the enslavement of Africans, always include children since they affect whole societies. It is impossible to pretend, given the reality of these circumstances, that all children live the protected lives that earlier books portrayed. Bosmajian wrote that perhaps some adults object to stories about these events because "we fear that to depict the children within the nightmare of history will both taint our own image of innocence and deny young readers trust in the future we shape." However, she notes, telling children about these events and letting them discuss their concerns about them "cannot but be therapeutic."

Paula Fox obviously supports the view that writers should not shy away from portraying real pain and notes that some contemporary books may pretend to look at the dark side of life but in the end try to make readers believe that everything will be all right. Fox told Sylvia Steinberg in Publishers Weekly, "The American idea is that everything can be solved. Our lives are not problems to be solved! They're to be lived!… Children are given liar's clothes early on. It's a way of not looking." And, more heatedly she said, "At the core of everything I write is the feeling that the denial of the truth imprisons us even further in ourselves." In her essay "Some Thoughts on Imagination in Children's Literature" in Celebrating Children's Books: Essay on Children's Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland, she described such books as "tract literature" and as

stories that strain to teach children how to manage life by merely naming such "problems" as disease, physical anomalies, and even death and by assuring them there is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to suffer about, nothing complex.

Clearly, The Slave Dancer is not that kind of book. The book contains disease, physical (and moral) anomalies, death, and a host of other frightening things: Jessie's father is dead, his family is extremely poor, he is kidnapped, he is beaten and Page 294  |  Top of Articlesees others beaten, he sees slaves thrown over the rail of the ship—both dead and alive—after being starved, exposed to disease, and tormented—and he doesn't know if he will ever make it home alive. Worse, he not only has to witness the torment of the slaves but he is forced to become one of their oppressors as he plays his flute; he is aware that, even though he is like them in the sense that he is a prisoner on the ship, when they reach land, he will be free to go home to his mother and sister, a choice that will forever be denied to the slaves. In addition, he is aware that because he is white, the crew automatically regards him as "human," whereas they don't see the slaves as human at all. For Jessie, who has noted his kinship with the slave boy Ras, this false dichotomy is troubling: he knows that, at bottom, there is no difference between them, but the sailors beat him whenever he shows compassion for the slaves' humanity and their suffering.

Jessie cannot find an easy solution to these moral questions and to the questions of why people are cruel and why people suffer. Even after Jessie makes it home, he is changed permanently. Although he grows up and manages to make a modestly successful life, with a decent career, a wife, and a child, the scars of the voyage are always with him. His decisions to become an apothecary, move to the North, and fight for the Union side during the Civil War are all direct results of his harrowing childhood experience. For his whole life, he avoids or fights against anything that helps the cause of slavery. For his whole life, he struggles against the memory of his own brief captivity on the ship and the marks it has left on his psyche. Even though he appears normal and well adjusted to his neighbors and even when he rarely thinks consciously about the ship, he is unable to hear any music—no matter how simple—without pain. His musical gift, which was once so lighthearted and free, has become a continuing symbol of the slaves' torment, and of his own.

This loss of a certain amount of joy, this tempering of the soul and of hope, is only natural in someone who has seen what Jessie has seen. To write a book in which someone saw the suffering of slaves and who then went home and "recovered" from the experience would be shallow and false. In "Some Thoughts on Imagination in Children's Literature," Fox wrote of books that bring up social problems and then provide easy answers: "The implicit instructions of contemporary 'realistic' books may vary … but they have the same sequel: they smother speculation, they stifle uncertainty, they strangle imagination." In these books, she wrote, "We present children with cozy books about desertion and death and sex, promising them that, in the end, everything can be made all right. Thus we drown eternal human questions with contemporary bromides."

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What Do I Read Next?

  • In Western Wind (1993), by Paula Fox, a lonely young girl is sent to live with her grandmother on a remote island off the coast of Maine.
  • Paula Fox's Monkey Island (1991) tells the story of a homeless boy, Clay Garrity, who lives on the streets and is eventually helped by two other homeless men.
  • In Up From Slavery, originally published in 1901 and reprinted in 2000 by Signet, Booker T. Washington tells the story of his early life as a slave and how he rose to become president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
  • To Be a Slave (1988), by Julius Lester, is a collection of reminiscences of ex-slaves about their experiences, from leaving Africa, through the Civil War, and into the early twentieth century.
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, originally published in 1845 and reprinted by Signet in 1997, relates his life as a former slave who eventually became a minister, orator, and leader of his people. The book talks of his days as a slave and describes how he gained his freedom.
  • The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1997), by Sojourner Truth (d. 1883) and Olive Gilbert, is a partial autobiography of a slave woman who became a pioneer in the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Although Fox's work is painfully realistic, it is not pessimistic. Jessie does manage to create a good life; he is not scarred to the point of being unable to contribute positively to the world. As John Rowe Townsend wrote in A Sounding of Sto-Page 295  |  Top of Articlerytellers, "Ultimately the book is not depressing; the human spirit is not defeated."

Fox's insistence on telling the truth is allied to her sense that writing for adults is no different from writing for children. She once stopped to write a children's book in the middle of writing a novel for adults and says that she does not write differently for her two audiences. John Rowe Townsend, in A Sense of Story, quoted Fox as having said, "I never think I'm writing for children when I work. A story does not start for anyone, nor an idea, nor a feeling of an idea; but starts more for oneself." Unlike other writers, who "write down" for children or try to teach some moral lesson, Fox follows her instincts and tells the truth about events, believing that the truth is inherently interesting and that only by exploring it can readers, and writers, grow as human beings.

In her acceptance speech for the Newbery Award, reprinted in Newbery and Caldecott Winners, 1966–1975, Fox wrote that writing helps us "to connect ourselves with the reality of our own lives. It is painful; but if we are to become human, we cannot abandon it."

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on The Slave Dancer, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

John Rowe Townsend

In the following essay excerpt, Townsend calls The Slave Dancer Fox's "finest achievement," and says children "ought not to grow up without it."

I have left until last the book which, so far, is Paula Fox's finest achievement. I do not think it could have been predicted from her earlier work that she would write such a book as The Slave Dancer. It is the story of Jessie Bollier, a boy who is pressed into the crew of the slave ship Moonlight in 1840 for a voyage to Africa, picking up a cargo of blacks to be sold in Cuba. This is a case where the discipline of writing for the children's list has been wholly to the benefit of the book as a work of art. The 'young eye at the centre' is no mere convention of the adventure story for children; it is the one perspective from which the witnessing of dreadful events can be fully and freshly experienced, and at the same time the moral burden be made clear. Jessie is horrified by the treatment of the slaves, but he is powerless to prevent it; moreover he is young, white, and one of the crew, and the oppressors are his fellow-countrymen.

Jessie plays the fife, and his job is to make music to which, for brief periods daily, the slaves can exercise. This is called dancing the slaves. The aim
Diagram of a British slave ship, showing the layout for stowing 292 slaves lying down in the lower deck

Diagram of a British slave ship, showing the layout for stowing 292 slaves lying down in the lower deck
is to keep them (relatively) healthy and therefore marketable, in spite of the crowded and filthy conditions in which they live. A slave has no human value but has a financial one: a dead slave is a lost profit. As the voyage goes on, the slaves, crammed together in the reeking hold, become sick, half-starved and hopeless, most of them suffering from Page 296  |  Top of Article'the bloody flux', an affliction that makes the latrine buckets inadequate. And Jesse finds that 'a dreadful thing' is happening in his mind:

I hated the slaves! I hated their shuffling, their howling, their very suffering! I hated the way they spat out their food upon the deck, the overflowing buckets, the emptying of which tried all my strength. I hated the foul stench that came from the holds no matter which way the wind blew, as though the ship itself were soaked with human excrement. I would have snatched the rope from Spark's [the mate's] hand and beaten them myself! Oh, God! I wished them all dead! Not to hear them! Not to smell them! Not to know of their existence!

The Slave Dancer is not a story solely of horror. It is also a novel of action, violence and suspense, culminating in shipwreck (which was indeed the fate of a slaver called Moonlight in the Gulf of Mexico in 1840; the actual names of her crew are used). Jessie and a black boy named Ras with whom he has made a precarious friendship are the only survivors; they reach land and there is a limited happy ending. Ras is set on the road to freedom; Jessie gets home to his mother and sister, is apprenticed, lives an ordinary, modestly-successful life, and fights in the Civil War on the Union side.

After the war my life went on much like my neighbors' lives. I no longer spoke of my journey on a slave ship back in 1840. I did not often think of it myself. Time softened my memory as though it was kneading wax. But there was one thing that did not yield to time.

I was unable to listen to music. I could not bear to hear a woman sing, and at the sound of any instrument, a fiddle, a flute, a drum, a comb with paper wrapped around it played by my own child, I would leave instantly and shut myself away. For at the first note of a tune or of a song, I would see once again, as though they'd never ceased their dancing in my mind, black men and women and children lifting their tormented limbs in time to a reedy martial air, the dust rising from their joyless thumping, the sound of the fife finally drowned beneath the clanging of their chains.

Those are the closing sentences of The Slave Dancer. Ultimately the book is not depressing; the human spirit is not defeated. But it is permeated through and through by the horror it describes. The casual brutality of the ordinary seamen towards the slaves is as fearful in its way as the more positive and corrupt cruelty of the captain and mate and the revolting, hypocritical crew member Ben Stout. For the seamen are 'not especially cruel save in their shared and unshakable conviction that the least of them was better than any black alive'. They are merely ignorant. Villainy is exceptional by definition, but dreadful things done by decent men, to people whom they manage to look on as not really human, are a reminder of our own self-deceit and lack of imagination, of the capacity we all have for evil. There, but for the grace of God, go all of us.

Is such knowledge fit for children? Yes, it is; they ought not to grow up without it. This book looks at a terrifying side of human nature, and one which—in the specific manifestation of the slave trade—has left deeply-planted obstacles in the way of human brotherhood. The implication was made plain by Paula Fox in her Newbery acceptance speech in 1974. We must face this history of evil, and our capacity for evil, if the barriers are ever to come down.

Source: John Rowe Townsend, "Paula Fox," in A Sounding of Storytellers: New and Revised Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children, J. B. Lippincott, 1979, pp. 55-65.


Bach, Alice, Review in Horn Book, August 1974.

Bosmajian, Hamida, "Nightmares of History: The Outer Limits of Children's Literature," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Winter 1983, pp. 20-22.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, Review in New Statesman, November 8, 1974.

Dixon, Bob, Catching Them Young: Sex, Race and Class in Children's Fiction, Pluto Press, 1977.

Mathis, Sharon Bell, "The Slave Dancer Is an Insult to Black Children," in Cultural Conformity in Books for Children: Further Readings in Racism, edited by Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard, Scarecrow Press, 1977.

Rees, David, "The Colour of Saying," in The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults, in Horn Book, 1980, p. 114-27.

Steinberg, Sybil, "Paula Fox: Writing for Two Genres, She Has Earned a Reputation for High Quality Novels and Books for Young People," Interview, in Publishers Weekly, April 6, 1990, p. 99.

Tate, Binne, "Racism and Distortion Pervade The Slave Dancer," in Cultural Conformity in Books for Children: Further Readings in Racism, edited by Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard, Scarecrow Press, 1977.

Townsend, John Rowe, A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children, J. B. Lippincott, 1971.

―――――――, A Sounding of Storytellers: New and Revised Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children, J. B. Lippincott, 1979, pp. 55-65.

Page 297  |  Top of Article

For Further Study

Fox, Paula, "Some Thoughts on Imagination in Children's Literature," in Celebrating Children's Books: Essay on Children's Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland, edited by Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye, Lee and Shepard Books, 1981.

In this essay, Fox discusses how books fuel the imagination of children.

Hamilton, Virginia, Her Stories, Scholastic, 1995.

Hamilton offers a collection of African-American folktales, fairy tales, and true stories. The book won the 1996 Coretta Scott King award.

Kingman, Lee, Newbery and Caldecott Winners, 1966–1975, Horn Book, 1975.

This contains Fox's acceptance speech for the New-bery Medal, which she won for Slave Dancer.

Marcus, Leonard S., "An Interview with Phyllis J. Fogel-man," in Horn Book, March, 1999, p. 148.

Editor Fogelman discusses young adult literature about African Americans.

Myers, Walter, Now Is Your Time: The African-American Struggle for Freedom, HarperCollins Juvenile Books, 1992.

Myers tells the history of African Americans through the narratives of outstanding individuals.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"The Slave Dancer." Novels for Students, edited by Elizabeth Thomason, vol. 12, Gale, 2001, pp. 280-297. Gale Literary Sources, Accessed 22 May 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2592500024

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  • Adulthood
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 293
      • 12: 295
  • Africa
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 282
      • 12: 290
  • Anger
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 282
      • 12: 287
      • 12: 292
  • Childhood
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 292-294
  • Crime and Criminals
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 280
      • 12: 282-283
      • 12: 291
  • Cruelty
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 282-283
      • 12: 287-288
      • 12: 291
  • Dance
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 280
      • 12: 282-284
  • Death
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 282-284
      • 12: 287
      • 12: 289-291
  • Emotions
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 287
      • 12: 289
      • 12: 292-293
  • Fear and Terror
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 295-296
  • Freedom and Imprisonment
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 287
  • God
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 282-283
      • 12: 288-289
  • Hatred
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 283
      • 12: 287
      • 12: 289
  • Honor
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 292
  • Hypocrisy Versus Integrity
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 287
  • Landscape
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 282-283
      • 12: 287-290
  • Law and Order
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 282
      • 12: 289-291
  • Music
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 284
      • 12: 287-296
  • North America
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 283
      • 12: 287
      • 12: 289-291
  • Perception
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 283
      • 12: 287-289
  • Persecution
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 293-294
  • Race
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 283
      • 12: 288
      • 12: 290
      • 12: 292
  • Racism and Prejudice
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 280
      • 12: 290
      • 12: 292
  • Religion and Religious Thought
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 287-288
  • Sickness
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 282-283
      • 12: 290-291
  • Slavery
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 280-284
      • 12: 287-296
  • Trust
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 282
      • 12: 289
  • War, the Military, and Soldier Life
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 284
      • 12: 287
      • 12: 292
  • Wildlife
    • The Slave Dancer:
      • 12: 280
      • 12: 287
      • 12: 289-295