I am taking a class on multicultural materials for children and young adults, and the first assignment is to read two selections related to African-American culture. I don’t usually post on the readings that I complete for school, but since these are mostly YA books, I thought they might be of interest. My first selection from the reading list was Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer.
When his mother asks him to fetch some candles from his Aunt’s house, Jessie Bollier did not imagine that he would soon find himself aboard a slaver bound for Africa. Pressed into service, Jessie is captured for his skills as a fife player; Captain Cawthorne needs a slave dancer, and he is going to have to play that part or face the consequences of defiance. Aboard The Moonlight, Jessie learns much about the cruelties of the slave trade, and the evils that drive men to torment one another without cause. Though disgusted by the situation aboard the ship, Jessie is unprepared to witness the horrors that accompany the trafficking of slaves. Tormented by his role as slave dancer, Jessie comes to hate everyone aboard the ship–the captain, the crew, the slaves, and himself–everyone that reminds him of his helplessness. But when the ship is wrecked during a storm, Jessie finds the strength to swim to freedom in the company of a young slave boy. Jessie soon learns to communicate with the boy and finds a way to deal with the consequences of his life-altering journey aboard The Moonlight.
I found that Jessie’s story does not focus on the experience of the slaves as much as on his perception of the twisted sense of morality and justice that drives his fellow crew members. While the narrative is grim, Fox does not dwell too much on the conditions of the slaves. The amount of description is appropriate for the intended 10-14 year old audience, and the issues raised by Jessie’s account can serve as a conversation starter for a discussion on ethics and compassion.