Pub. Date: February 7, 2017
Source: Borrowed from the library
Summary: When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital, after a brief stay in New York. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and nine slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.
Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs. At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.
Back in January, I shared a week-long series called 2017 Books I Need to Get My Hands On, dedicating each day to a different genre. In my nonfiction post, I featured Never Caught and since then, it has been a book I desperately wanted to read. I mean, really, George Washington, a female slave who saw her chance at freedom and took it, the ensuing search and mission to recapture her. It sounded so fascinating and right up my alley. Unfortunately, we all know how it is when there are books we can’t wait to dive into: life happens. Other books arrived, work got in the way, the days turned into months and eventually a year nearly went by with Never Caught still unread.
That is, until Tackling the TBR. I’ll be honest, Never Caught was probably the book I was most excited about and I leapt at the excuse to finally make the time for it!
As a child, One Judge began taking on different tasks and jobs, tending to the whims of Martha Washington. With each year, her sewing and needlework improved and she soon became one of Mrs. Washington’s most valued slaves, if not the most valued. Among a select few of the most trusted and seemingly loyal slaves, Ona was chosen to accompany the Washingtons as they moved up north to Philadelphia to care for the newly elected President and First Lady.
But Washington soon received word of a law, one that stated any enslaved person living in Pennsylvania for a period of six months would be granted freedom. He might be temporarily relocated to the emancipated North, but Washington was a Southerner through and through – and he wasn’t about to lose his slaves. His plan to work around this law? He would rotate the slaves just before the six month period has elapsed, sending them back to Mount Vernon or with Martha under the guise of visiting relatives and friends in other Southern states.
It was in Philadelphia that Ona had her first taste of freedom, witnessing firsthand the life she was denied: attending the theater, having her own home, getting married. Although she was surely tempted, Ona also knew what happened to those who took a chance and were eventually caught. She had a large family back in Virginia, any repercussions wouldn’t just affect her, but her sisters, her mother. Instead, she bided her, further solidifying the Washingtons’ trust. Until one night. In the middle of a dinner party she slipped out the door and, through a pre-Underground Railroad network of safe houses and allies, Ona Judge was on her way to freedom.
At just 200 pages, Never Caught is a super slim book that packs a massive punch. Dunbar did an astronomical amount of research (I hadn’t realized I reached the end until I noticed the chunk left was devoted to the bibliography, further reading, and an index) and that research certainly shows. Ona’s story was a fascinating one and I couldn’t help but hold my breath as she was recognized by one of Washington’s friends. Even though I knew the outcome (hello, it’s right there in the title!) I was still nervous when Ona received a knock at her door. That right there is the mark of a fantastic writer. Dunbar couldn’t have been more upfront about Ona’s successful escape, but her descriptions and narrative had me captivated and terrified.
I truly didn’t want this one to end and tried my best to savor each page, a hard task with such a short book. Still, I’m immensely happy I finally set aside the time to dive into this one! Never Caught is a highly readable, engaging read perfect for fans of historical fiction (the narrative flows just like a fiction novel, making it a great book for those put off by dry, academic works) and nonfiction alike. Tackling the TBR is shaping up to be a huge success!
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce
A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine
Mort by Terry Pratchett
The Dark Deeps by Arthur Slade
Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
The Promise of Breeze Hill by Pam Hillman
Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer