Read The Slave Dancer Online

Authors: Paula Fox

The Slave Dancer






Winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award

Winner of the
Paris Review's
Hadada Award

“The greatest writer of her generation.” —Jonathan Franzen

“One of America's most talented writers.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Consistently excellent.”
—The New York Times

“Fox has always been adept at writing apparently simple stories which on closer examination prove to explore the essential meaning of relationships … and to illuminate our understanding of the human condition.”
—School Library Journal

“Paula Fox is so good a novelist that one wants to go out in the street to hustle up a big audience for her.… Fox's brilliance has a masochistic aspect: I will do this so well, she seems to say, that you will hardly be able to read it. And so she does, and so do I.” —Peter S. Prescott,

“Fox is one of the most attractive writers to come our way in a long, long time.” —
The New Yorker

“As a writer, Fox is all sensitive, staring eyeball. Her images break the flesh. They scratch the retina … Fox's prose hurts.” —Walter Kirn,
New York

“Fox's achievement is to write with magnificent restraint and precision about the interplay of personal and historical, inner growth and outer framework, the process of learning to think about oneself and the world.” —Margaret and Michael Rustin

“Fox has little of Roth's self-consciousness, less of Bellow's self-importance, and none of Updike's self-pity. Unlike all three men, Fox does not jealously save the best lines for a favoured alter ego, and her protagonists do not have a monopoly on nuance. Instead, she distributes her formidable acumen unselfishly, so that even the most minor characters can suddenly offer crucial insight, and unsympathetic characters are often the most fascinating: brilliant, unfathomable and raging.” —Sarah Churchwell

“There are no careless moves in the fiction of Paula Fox.… [Her] work has a purity of vision, and a technique undiminished by
or self-indulgence.” —Randal Churb,
The Boston Review

“Paula Fox is as good as her revived reputation suggests.” —Fiona Maazel,

The Slave Dancer

Newbery Medal Winner

“Spellbinding … will horrify as well as fascinate.”
—School Library Journal
, starred review

“Movingly and realistically presents one of the most gruesome chapters of history.”
, starred review

“Each of the sailors is sharply individualized, the inhuman treatment of the captives is conveyed straight to the nose and stomach rather than the bleeding heart, and the scenes in which Jessie is forced to play his fife to ‘dance the slaves' for their morning exercise become a haunting, focusing image for the whole bizarre undertaking.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Moving, harrowing, and, unfortunately, entirely believable.”
Historical Novel Society

“Brutal and brilliant.” —
The Paris Review

The Slave Dancer

Paula Fox

For Shauneille and Don Ryder

and their daughters, Lorraine and Natalie




The Errand

The Moonlight

The Shrouds

The Bight of Benin

Nicholas Spark Walks on Water

The Spaniard

Ben Stout's Mistake

The Old Man

Home and After

About the Author


Many times a book is just that, a book. Occasionally a book is more. It can be a comforting diversion, a prod to some inner emotion, it can even become an old friend. Rarer yet, a book can be all of the aforementioned as well as something still more profound: It can be an act of courage.

This is where the nearly half-century-old
The Slave Dancer
sits in my pantheon of great books. Paula Fox's work displays the kind of gutsy, vital writing that assures it will be as fresh and relevant fifty years from now as it is today.

When Ms. Fox decided she was going to write a story about slavery, she was faced with a whole raft of difficult choices. I know, because I've been through the very same struggle of choosing how to portray horrors that are nearly unimaginable.

For years I wanted to write a novel about slavery from a slave's perspective, but I delayed and delayed because I couldn't find a way to do it. It proved impossible for me to comprehend what it was like to inhabit the mind of a person whose family had been enslaved for generations. How, I asked myself, could I even pretend to know what type of mental machinations and emotional death would go into having to think of yourself as nothing more than an animal? And worse yet, having to teach your children that if they want to survive, they too must accept the constant degradation and humiliation; that they must never forget they are not even close to being fully human. Nothing in any of my research, my life, or my imagination, would allow me to honestly make this leap. Slavery was a horror beyond my skills as an author.

Paula Fox, always showing immense respect, overcomes this problem by having us view slavery through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier, a poor white boy whose one skill, playing the flute, gets him shanghaied onto a slave ship to serve as a slave dancer.

Even though this is a book for young people, Ms. Fox never writes down to them. Nor does she wallow in the obscene, traumatic turn Jessie's life has taken. Our naïve narrator grows up very quickly and the reader's revulsion at his predicament grows right along with him. Through Ms. Fox's deft hand, Jessie's descriptions reveal the abominations of the slave trade through the eyes of a boy's limited understanding of a complex and difficult situation. Our older, more experienced eyes allow us to be appalled.

An example of this is Ms. Fox's revelation of the overpowering, all-encompassing stench produced when upwards of a hundred human beings are kept tightly packed below deck for months at a time. Slave ships, such as the
, were so rank and befouled after the middle passage that they could never be reused as anything other than a slave ship. When they had served their purpose they were either scuttled or taken out to sea and set afire.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, another example of the courage of Paula Fox is her use of the “N” word.

Though the word might not have been quite as controversial when the book was written in 1973, it was problematic enough. But who could have ever dreamed that fifty years later the word would become even more toxic?

It's difficult for me to describe the depths of my feelings toward this word. Its continued use shows a breathtaking and inexcusable depth of ignorance on the part of whoever utters it, regardless of their race. My feelings about it are rooted in my walks to school through segregated Flint, Michigan, where, as a junior high student, my siblings and I were liberally peppered with the slur.

There is only one context in which this word is acceptable, and that is its historical context. It is ugly, it is grating, it jumps off the page at me, but, in keeping with the tone of this beautiful book, its use is real and accurate. There is no way around that.

The Slave Dancer
is not an easy book to read. It is unsettling, unnerving, and unapologetic in its blunt presentation of an incredibly difficult subject. My respect as an author is rooted in the fact that Ms. Fox neither panders nor pulls her punches nor allows the reader a chance to wiggle off the hook.

The book remains both a major literary accomplishment and a major act of courage on the part of Paula Fox. I am proud to know I am in the same profession as she.

Christopher Paul Curtis



The Moonlight
Captain Cawthorne—the Master
Nicholas Spark—the Mate
Jessie Bollier
John Cooley
Adolph Curry
Louis Gardere
Ned Grime
Isaac Porter
Clay Purvis
Claudius Sharkey
Seth Smith
Benjamin Stout
Sam Wick
98 slaves whose true names were remembered only by their families, except for the young boy, Ras
Shipwrecked in the Gulf of Mexico, June 3, 1840

The Errand

In a hinged wooden box upon the top of which was carved a winged fish, my mother kept the tools of her trade. Sometimes I touched a sewing needle with my finger and reflected how such a small object, so nearly weightless, could keep our little family from the poorhouse and provide us with enough food to sustain life—although there were times when we were barely sustained.

Our one room was on the first floor of a brick and timber house which must have seen better times. Even on sunny days I could press my hand against the wall and force the moisture which coated it to run to the floor in streams. The damp sometimes set my sister, Betty, to coughing which filled the room with barking noises like those made by quarreling animals. Then my mother would mention how fortunate we were to live in New Orleans where we did not suffer the cruel extremes of temperature that prevailed in the north. And when it rained for days on end, leaving behind when it ceased a green mold which clung to my boots, the walls and even the candlesticks, my mother thanked God that we were spared the terrible blizzards she remembered from her childhood in Massachusetts. As for the fog, she observed how it softened the clamor from the streets and alleyways and kept the drunken riverboat men away from our section of the
Vieux Carré.

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