Newbery Book Review

The Slave Dancer

“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.”

The Slave Dancer, p 175-176

This weekend I took the train to Renton to spend some long overdue time with friends, Missy and Sarah.  When my train rolled in at 9:30 pm I was immediately welcomed with very warm hugs and proceeded to have a weekend of heart-to-heart chats, plenty of sunshine, relaxation and laughter to the point of Missy needing to run to the bathroom before she peed all over the kitchen floor.  It was wonderful.  Not to mention the fact that the train is the way to travel.  If only there were one great big bridge (with plenty high rails on either side) over the big ocean so I could just take the train to Paris.  (Just kidding, that would take forever and be miserable.)

Most of my time there was spent with the Takano clan.  I stayed the night there on Friday where we played a card game with Jack and Sarah (I did not do so well…) and then Saturday morning had breakfast out with Missy and Chris.  The day was absolutely gorgeous so Miss and I went to the park and enjoyed views of the water, sail boats and tons of pregnant women walking around.  (Spring is here apparently.)  The entire weekend was relaxing and wonderful.  Sarah let me stay at her cute apartment on Saturday night and we stayed up late catching up, which was also wonderful.  I’ve missed these two wonderful women in my life!!

In addition to the weekend’s adventure I finished the Newbery for the week: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox.  It was a short ‘week’ considering I just finished M. C. on Wednesday and picked this one up as soon as that blog was posted.  But, I’m finally back on track.  (Deep sigh of relief here)  Now, I appreciate a good book about the racial injustice’s faced by our African-American brothers and sisters but in some ways I feel like I have already read several of them on this quest, and if I’m really honest I have to admit that when I pick up the book of the week and see the cover or the title at all alluding to that topic I tend to heave a sigh of discouragement.  “Another one?”  I think to myself.  I had that reaction with this one but Ms. Fox threw me for a loop.

The story is as follows: Jessie Bollier lives in New Orleans with his mom and sister in a poor section of town until one night he is kidnapped and taken aboard a slaver ship bound for Africa.  He, along with his fife, have been enlisted to play music for the slaves once they are retrieved in order for them to dance on deck.  Why?  To keep them in shape so they’ll bring more profit when sold in Cuba.  It’s gruesome and uncomfortable in several places and the injustice shown to the slaves is heart wrenching.  The majority of the story is on board The Moonlight and the inter-relationship of the crew and Jesse and the treatment of the slaves.  You hate the Captain and first mate and feel Jesse’s despair as he wonders if he’ll ever get to go home.  The crew treat the slaves as less than human and I was surprised to find that it wasn’t white men selling the black men, women and children to the slavers; rather, it is black men selling black men, women, and children.  There is no solidarity of race or looking out for one’s own, only greed and profit.  Until the end.  When the ship arrives in Cuba there are American ships that start to chase the slaver and in an attempt to escape the law the crew throw most of the slaves overboard to the sharks and attempt to outrun the other ship.  Jessie and Ras, the one slave boy to escape being thrown overboard, hide in the hold for what feels like days and days.  When a storm basically tears the ship apart Jessie and Ras escape to the closest shore, which turns out to be Mississippi.  They are taken in by an old man, probably a previous slave, named Daniel.  He makes sure Ras, who doesn’t speak any English, is taken back to Africa and is safe and tells Jesse how to get home.

Throwing me for a loop: I thought Jesse was black until about 3/4 of the way in.  How did this happen?  How was I so off base?  I kept thinking how interesting it was that here was this black boy playing a fife for black slaves.  One free, the rest slaves.  But I was wrong.  Jesse was in fact a white boy.  In a way I am thankful for the misunderstanding because my perception of Jesse totally changed when my mistake was corrected.  I was able to view the story from an entirely different perspective for awhile.

Also, I made judgment calls on who, of the crew, I thought was trustworthy or who would be a protector of Jesse and I could not have been more wrong.  Either I’m losing my touch on being able to predict character roles and plot or Paula Fox is just that good at writing in such a way that you are not prepared for what comes next.

The quote I opened with is actually the final paragraph of the book.  It struck me because music is usually what soothes people, makes them happy or excited, and yes sometimes sad.  But music for Jesse was now associated with memories and realities so gruesome in detail that he couldn’t stand to be reminded of them.  He was confronted with the ugliness of greed and self-importance and was forced to watch innocent people snatched from their lives and taken, ultimately to their death.  Once again I am grieved by the history of man but thankful for the few who seek to redeem the ugliness and live by the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Matthew 7:12

I’m sad that I didn’t get a picture of Sarah with the book.  I will on my next adventure to Renton. :)

Till next time…

 

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3 thoughts on “The Slave Dancer

  1. Thank you for opening the pages of a book and giving us more than a mere glimpse. I’m amazed at the issues covered in childrens literature. So many of them are filled with social injustices and loss. Life is serious and there are so many stories that need to be told of someone’s painful journey. But I miss the days of fairy tales. When the scariest thing was the monster under the bed or in the closet. Where minds were filled with dreaming and laughter. Or finding the spider on the page…oops…one mans fun is another mans terror. Who knew!

    Keep reading…and writing…because we love catching a glimpse of your heart mingled with review.

  2. So glad you could have precious time with Sarah and Missy before your trip to Paris. Thanks for posting.

    And hey, if they made a bridge across the Atlantic, I’m sure they could make one across the Pacific and you could come visit me!!

    PS-I love Forrest’s comment.

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