Paula Fox and the Gift of Understanding
April 5, 2013 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
This year our Spring Revel will take place on April 9. In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Paula Fox, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize.
When I saw the film adaptation of The Hunger Games last year, I left the theater feeling uneasy about the shaky-cam, blurry, PG-13–sanctioned violence of kids killing kids. It was videogame violence, the sort that disappeared in the span of a moment, not the sort of savagery that hits you in the gut, makes you understand what the cost of violence can be. Weeks later, the film did not sit well with me, lingering as a mediocrity only made palatable by the endless soul of Jennifer Lawrence’s presence onscreen.
And after rereading Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer, a 1974 Newbery Award–winning children’s novel, I wonder, seriously, what she would make of the glib work aimed at children these days, particularly the uneven aspects of the Hunger Games series—on book and film—a work that puts its characters in thrilling situations and often on the precipice of horrible choices that will define their humanity, but all too often stops and takes the easy way out, in the form of deus ex machinas and conspiracies that go all the way to the top.
Because here’s the thing about Paula Fox’s work: she never takes the easy way out. And in her work for children, she writes with evenness and truth, never lying to children about the horrors of the world. Rather, she gives them the chance to find some light on the other side. She won the Hans Christen Andersen Award in 1978 for “lasting contribution to children’s literature,” and it was well deserved.
The Slave Dancer is brutal and brilliant and hard to read—banned by some schools because it has scenes of abject sadism, of man’s inhumanity to man, all for the sake of business and trade—but the darkness makes the moments of humanity, empathy, and sympathy stand out. Worst of all is that this book is a piece of historical fiction, rooted in truth. It very well could’ve happened, likely did happen in some similar manner. It begins in disorientation: by the end of the first chapter, feckless thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier is kidnapped, snatched from his life in New Orleans and placed on a slave ship, where he will have to play his pipe for the slaves.
The captain bites Jessie’s ear—draws blood—so he’s submissive; water is in short supply; the men fight. “When I remembered the wretchedness of my situation, I wondered if there was something about a ship that makes men glide from one state of mind to another as effortlessly as a ship glides through water.” For the first third of the book, the reader is as unsettled as Jessie, understanding the rhythms and the hard life on the ship. But when the slaves come, that’s when the rule of law changes. What was a brotherhood of man becomes something else: dark and cruel and hard to comprehend. The men treat the slaves like animals, cargo, less than human. Their conditions are putrid, stinking, dank, mired in piss and shit. Jesse is required to play his pipe for them so that they dance, “because it keeps them healthy.” The crew whip and drag these sick hulls of men taken from their homes and make them stand upright and move for Jessie’s fife. To stay sane, Jessie retreats into his mind: “I found out how to be in another place. You simply imagined it.”
Fox describes the slaves viscerally. Their bones protrude, Jessie can count their ribs, they don’t have the strength to stand, “blood ran in streams” down the back of a man being flogged. Slavery isn’t an idea, something that happened and went away. In this book, slavery is a brutalized human body, a life that can exist in misery and disappear in a minute, a child who is thrown off the side of a ship to drown and die, and the cruelty of that choice is disturbing and horrific. And that could be all, a blunt point applied to the head, a film by Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier.
The genius of the book resides in the fact that part of the story mucks around with the average plots of books where the writer wants the reader to know that slavery is bad. This is where the narrative gets familiar. A boy finds freedom through the Underground Railroad. Jessie becomes a person again, partially through survival instinct and partially through friendship with a boy from the ship named Ras. And Jessie understands that slavery is a horror. But there is a twist, one dark and haunting. Jessie is haunted, scarred from the slave ship. And he is cursed to always carry those scars.
Writing for children is a great responsibility. Children are new humans, hungry for stories and hungry for understanding of the world, how things work and how to behave and how to live. Fox understands, powerfully, that children abide and endure, and there’s endless generosity in the way that she writes for children. They are given a gift far better than mere passing entertainment. They are given the gift of understanding.