Jessie Bollier, the narrator of The Slave Dancer, relates how he was kidnapped at age thirteen and made to play his fife on a slave ship, how he endured a journey to West Africa and back, and how he and the young slave Ras survived a shipwreck. He resists the moral corruption of the sadistic men on the slave ship and eventually triumphs over the poverty of his childhood by becoming an apothecary, or druggist. These victories are not easily gained, though. Jessie vividly records his struggles with the slave dealers and the elements of nature, and carries with him a permanent psychological scar: never again is he able to listen to music.
The Slave Dancer is a novel about ideas and history in the guise of a superbly told adventure story. The novel is thought-provoking; it encourages readers to ask themselves how they would have reacted if they were in Jessie's place. Because of Fox's careful research, the novel gives a realistic view of life aboard a slave ship. It also shows what life was like for poor people living in the American South during the 1840s, revealing the extent to which slavery pervaded and corrupted American society. The novel is rich with facts about the slave trade, about the debate over banning slavery, and about living conditions and customs of the time.
Thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier, his widowed mother, and his sister live in a one-room home in a poor quarter of New Orleans in 1840. His mother makes a meager wage sewing dresses, and Jessie plays his fife to make a few pennies. He dreams of being rich someday, and although he is curious about the lives of slaves he sees, he is forbidden to visit the slave market and knows little about their daily existence. His mother tells him that despite his family's grinding poverty,
there were souls whose fates were so terrible in comparison to ours, that we should consider ourselves among the fortunate of the earth. I knew she was thinking of the slaves who were sold daily so close to where we lived.
When his mother has to make a dress in a hurry, she sends Jessie out to his aunt's house to get some candles so she can stay up late to sew, but on the way home from this errand, two sailors who have seen him playing his fife kidnap him.
Their ship is The Moonlight, a ship bound for Africa, under Captain Cawthorne, a man so brutal that when he meets Jessie, he bites Jessie's ear hard enough to draw blood. Captain Cawthorne tells Jessie that The Moonlight is a slave ship, involved in a "lucrative and God-granted trade," and that anyone who tries to interfere with it is a pirate. Jessie will play his fife to make the slaves "dance" once they are on board; this exercise will keep them strong and fit so that they will bring in more money when they are sold. In addition, he is expected to help around the ship.
Jessie meets Ned Spark, the ship's carpenter and occasional doctor, who professes to be a Christian but who will profit from the slave ship's voyage as much as the rest of the crew, including the ill-tempered cook; Nick Spark, the Mate, who is as cruel as the captain; and Ben Stout, who says he is sorry for Jessie's kidnapping, talks kindly to him, and gives him extra clothes and a piece of bread.
Once Jessie settles in, he notices that Purvis, who is a good sailor despite his rough manners and teasing sense of humor, is always busy, and he realizes that even though Purvis is one of the men who kidnapped him, he can trust him. Purvis tells Jessie that other ships will try and stop the slave ship from completing its journey. The British, who are against slavery, will board the ship and confiscate the slaves and the profits.
Until now, Jessie has been confused by the crew, who defend the trade, saying that so many ships are involved in it that the laws against it don't matter. Claudius Sharkey, a crewmember, tells Jessie that in addition to the British cruisers that make the trade dangerous, American ships also patrol against importers of slaves....
(The entire section is 2,343 words.)