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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927

Author: Walter Dean Myers (1937–2014)

First published: 2015

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: 1842–54

Locales: New York City; England

Principal characters

Master Juba, also known as William Henry Lane, an African American dancer

Stubby, his roommate; an aspiring chef

Jack...

(The entire section contains 927 words.)

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Author: Walter Dean Myers (1937–2014)

First published: 2015

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: 1842–54

Locales: New York City; England

Principal characters

Master Juba, also known as William Henry Lane, an African American dancer

Stubby, his roommate; an aspiring chef

Jack Bishop, their landlord

Margaret Moran, their neighbor; an Irish dance teacher

Gilbert W. Pell, the white leader of the Ethiopian Serenaders

The Story

Juba!, a novel based on the true story of the nineteenth-century dancer William Henry Lane (stage name Master Juba), was the product of copious research and feats of imagination. Walter Dean Myers, a well-regarded author of young adult literature, died while working on the novel, which was published posthumously in 2015. The book begins in 1842 in New York City, where a young African American freeman nicknamed Juba dreams of becoming a dancer. Juba lives in Five Points, a neighborhood populated by free African Americans and Irish immigrants, in Lower Manhattan. (Myers also wrote about the area in his 2009 novel Riot, about the 1863 Civil War draft riots.) Juba, a teenager, lives with his friend Stubby, who dreams of becoming the best chef in New York City. They work for their landlord, Jack Bishop, a widower who sells smoked oysters and fish. Jack becomes a mentor figure.

Juba also enjoys the barbed friendship of his neighbor, an Irish woman named Margaret Moran who teaches traditional Irish dance. Rounding out the core cast of characters is a man named Peter Williams. Williams, an untrustworthy fellow, owns a tavern called Almack's with his wife, Miss Lilly. Williams hires a host of dancers and entertainers at Almack's, including a white dancer named John Diamond. When the book begins, Juba, Diamond, and Juba's friend, another freeman named Freddy, must audition for a larger show at Almack's. At the audition, Diamond sits in the audience, taunting his competition. With a few other white men deciding the audition, Diamond encourages both Freddy and Juba (using an unprintable slur) to dance, not as dancers, but as minstrels. Minstrels, who were, for the most part, white people in blackface, were entertainers who lampooned black people as stupid or buffoonish. Freddy, desperate for a job, complies with the request, but Juba does not.

Williams cuts a deal with Juba: the young dancer can organize the entire show, a trial run, himself. Meanwhile, one of the men from the audition invites Freddy, a poor dancer, to dance in Washington, DC. Juba turns the same man down, and luckily, too; he later finds out that Freddy was tricked and sold into slavery. The popular minstrel shows and the terrifying specter of slavery loom in Juba!, informing the book's central question of whether Juba will be able to succeed on his own terms.

With help from Margaret and her team of Irish dancers, Stubby, and Freddy, Juba's show—Little Red Riding Hood told through Irish jig—is a stunning success. True to history, Charles Dickens, who often wrote under the name Boz, is in the audience. The great English author meets Juba and writes about him in his American Notes. Six years pass before Juba scores another big opportunity to dance, this time with a man named Gilbert W. Pell, the leader of a group called the Ethiopian Serenaders. The Serenaders were a minstrel troupe but, Myers suggests, they were less interested in buffoonery than in the music. Juba travels to England with the troupe, and in London, billed as "Boz's Juba," he gives the best performance of his life. He meets a costumer named Sarah. They marry, but the Serenaders disband. At the end of the book, Juba and Sarah have moved to a small English town. Juba ventures to Liverpool to find work, but dies there of fever.

Critical Evaluation

Aside from reports of a few successful performances and news of his tragic death, little was known about Master Juba, one of the most famous dancers of the nineteenth century. In the book's afterword, Myers's wife, Constance, wrote that Myers set out to uncover Juba's story and give it the sheen of real life—thus the book's disjointed structure. Engaging characters such as Stubby, Margaret, and Jack fall away as Juba enters a new phase of his life, with new friends. Many of the characters in the book are fictional, but several (Williams, Pell, Diamond, and Sarah among them) are real. Using these few facts and figures as guideposts, Myers tells a story that has troubling resonance in the twenty-first century. Throughout his career, Juba was forced to grapple with exploitation and racism. To dance at all, he had to perform alongside white men in blackface; even when he was celebrated, he was treated as a novelty rather than a serious artist. In this way, racism launched his career and just as abruptly ended it: for the English, the Serenaders were just another minstrel show, even if they did feature one of the best black performers of the age. Another writer might have chosen to tell Juba's story differently, but Myers has never shied away from complexity or been afraid to tell a sad tale. In this way, Juba! reads a bit like Myers's other novels, like Monster (1999) or Lockdown (2010). His characters do not so much overcome adversity as find ways to survive and obtain some measure of happiness within the dangerous catch-22 of racism.

Further Reading

  • Review of Juba!, by Walter Dean Myers. Kirkus, 23 June 2015, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/walter-dean-myers/juba. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.
  • Review of Juba!, by Walter Dean Myers. Publisher's Weekly, 20 July 2015, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-06-211271-2. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.
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