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the slave dancer

8 august 2011

The Slave Dancer, Paula Fox's 1974 Newbery-Medal-winning novel, is a book very much of its time: progressive in lots of ways, uncompromisingly anti-racist, yet curiously locked into an Anglo perspective on the suffering of African slaves. The novel seems to stay on the outside of the problems it brings to children's attention. It does so in the service of admirable humanist goals, though with some narrative stiffness and ultimately some historical implausibility.

Children's novels about any number of horrific historical injustices have become almost commonplace nowadays. The children's Holocaust story is practically a whole genre unto itself. In 1973, such stories were fewer, and the Middle Passage had a lower historical profile among children and adults in the U.S. In context, then, The Slave Dancer was a degree more remarkable than it now perhaps seems.

The novel uses some very tried-and-true elements of children's adventure fiction. The quasi-orphan shanghaied onto a voyage by pirates is familiar from Robert Louis Stevenson and other early romancers for the young. Jessie Bollier joins a long line of kids dealing with both scurvy knaves and just plain scurvy. Only Jessie does it on board a slave ship, with the geopolitics of the Wilberforce era giving new life to the haarrh-shiver-me-timbers formula.

Jessie is kidnapped from New Orleans, his home, by crewmen from the Moonlight, a slaver that is really a pirate ship in all but technicality. It's the early 19th century, and the slave trade is barely legal; the U.S. Navy won't allow American ships to participate in the trade, and the British Navy has proscribed it under any flag. All the problems of a parlous and evil enterprise, all its double-dealing and death and hypocrisy, are packed into one voyage of the Moonlight from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bight of Benin and back.

And all the drama of that voyage is transacted among the white sailors. Jessie has to thread his way through the dangerous decks of the Moonlight, finding out which good characters seem bad and which bad ones seem good. Historically, there's probably some realism in this dynamic. White men running slave ships generally understood little of their captives' lives and culture, and cared less. Fox goes to lengths to establish that the crew of the Moonlight have little sense of African humanity.

All of which is fine, except one must always ask of a work of fiction, even one that offers much verisimilitude: why did you choose to write about this? In 2011, a similar novel would feature one or more African characters as fully conscious participants in the plot. They'd find some way (perhaps unrealistic) to communicate with young Jessie. Or perhaps their story would be told in counterpoint to that of their captors. But in The Slave Dancer, the Africans are just cargo. Jessie sees their humanity, but they don't get a chance to express it directly to the reader.

I'm surely not the first, or even the hundredth, reader to point this out about The Slave Dancer. The effect, though, remains: the African characters in the novel now seem curiously muted, as if the only moral and psychological consequences worth studying are those transacted above deck among the white slave-traders. And that effect will date the book for subsequent readers.

Fox punishes her characters mercilessly. All the slave-traders die, and all the slaves die too, except one. There are two survivors (and since the book is told in the first person, it's fairly clear that Jessie will be one). At least in the edition I read, the outcome is "spoiled" from the start: a cast of characters informs us that they're all going to die. That's realistic too, especially for the slaves in the hold. But it also prevents those slaves from living to tell the story.

Stylistically, the novel is more rhetoric than fiction, often told in stilted terms. I don't believe Jessie as a narrating voice. He seems to be full of creative-writing observations, as if he'd been keeping a notebook and waiting to pour its contents into a novel. "In the east the sky paled ever so faintly as a though a drop of daylight had touched the black," says Jessie of the morning after his kidnapping (12). That's lyrical, but it just doesn't seem to me like what a scared-shitless 13-year-old would come up with at that juncture.

And ultimately, as I've said, the realism of the voyage scenes cedes to wishful thinking. Jessie and the other survivor, the African boy Ras, wash up in the state of Mississippi. They happen to be found by an old black man of mysterious gifts. Ras is in luck. "We're going to get him out of here," says the old man. "We got a way of taking him north, far from this place." (141). The Underground Railroad! This makes excellent emotional sense – we hardly want Ras to be re-enslaved after his survival – but historically speaking, it's nonsense. The Underground Railroad certainly never ran from the Gulf Coast north across several slave states to some northern haven of abolition. A few pages later, the old man "drew a chart of words that would lead me home to New Orleans" (145). Who is this guy? All I can think is that he's your basic deus ex machina.

Nevertheless, The Slave Dancer is a novel with its heart and head distinctly in the right places. If it creaks somewhat after 38 years, well, it's the rare children's book that escapes that fate; and there are some much more politically dubious books that share it.

Fox, Paula. The Slave Dancer. 1973. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1991.