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Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington's Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away; Young Readers Edition

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington's Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away; Young Readers Edition Book Poster Image
Riveting bio is a great resource for teaching about slavery.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Incredibly rich historical details about perils of daily life in slavery, social issues facing early republic, politics of abolitionism. Explains complicated historical events, laws like Fugitive Slave Law, Three-Fifths Compromise in U.S. Constitution (whereby only three of every five slaves were counted as a person in determining state's population, representation in House of Representatives), precarious situation of free black Americans in early republic. Filled with direct quotations from primary sources. Some historical information is presented simplistically or stated misleadingly, but for mostly text is amazing resource for students, teachers.

Positive Messages

The most "fundamental pursuit" is the pursuit of freedom, no matter the risks.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ona is revealed to have been courageous, heroic, determined, unapologetic in her struggle for liberty. On the other hand, George and Martha Washington and their slaveholding circle of friends are exposed as racist, hypocritical, self-interested socialites committed to preserving violent, oppressive system.

Violence

While no acts of violence are actually described in the text, there are frank discussions about how vulnerable enslaved individuals were to kidnapping, brutal punishment, sexual assault, including explicit references to rape.

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Never Caught, The Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington's Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away is a fact-filled, tween-friendly biography of a fascinating historical figure. This Young Readers Edition of historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar's Never Caught for adults is an excellent resource for teaching and learning about slavery in the early United States and the lives of enslaved women. The book is compelling in terms of storytelling and rich in detailed information about the period. No acts of violence are described, but there are frank discussions about how vulnerable enslaved individuals were to kidnapping, brutal punishment, and sexual assault, with explicit references to rape.

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What's the story?

NEVER CAUGHT, THE STORY OF ONA JUDGE: GEORGE AND MARTHA WASHINGTON'S COURAGEOUS SLAVE WHO RAN AWAY; YOUNG READERS EDITION is middle-grade novelist Kathleen Van Cleeve's tween-friendly adaptation of the 2017 nonfiction National Book Award finalist Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, written by historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Based on Dunbar's extensive archival research, the co-authors have produced a detailed biography of a remarkable woman, Ona Maria Judge, who was born into slavery on George and Martha Washington's famed Mount Vernon plantation around 1773 and ran away from America's most famous family in 1796, while Washington was president. Ona's youth coincides with the adolescence of the new United States, and her life alongside the president's family gives her an up-close and personal view of the turbulent politics and complicated social life of the nation's most prominent individuals. After taking the enormous risk of "stealing away" from the Washingtons, Ona is able to evade slave-catchers and make an independent life for herself in New Hampshire, although she remains in poverty -- and, legally speaking, a fugitive -- for the rest of her life. While this "Young Readers" edition emphasizes Ona's bravery and resilience more than George Washington's "relentless pursuit" of her that Dunbar details in her academic version for adult readers, the Washingtons and George's fellow "founding fathers" are nevertheless shown to be complicit -- if conflicted -- supporters of slavery.

Is it any good?

This riveting biography brings Ona to life as a conflicted young woman trying to survive through incredibly difficult circumstances. Her proximity to the Washingtons allows the authors an opportunity to explain complicated historical events and laws like the Fugitive Slave Law, the Three-Fifths Compromise in the U.S. Constitution, and the precarious situation of free black Americans in the early republic. The writing in this adaptation for young readers is mostly clear and compelling, though there are a few surprising instances in which the attempt to explain a complex historical phenomenon winds up oversimplifying, distorting, or slightly misrepresenting the facts. For instance, one misstatement claims that after the Revolutionary War, black loyalists were "completely abandoned" by the British, when in fact thousands were evacuated, many were given land grants in places like Nova Scotia and the Caribbean, and more than 1,000 wound up relocating to the newly established colony of Sierra Leone. While it's true that many black Loyalists were not fortunate enough to flee with the British armies, and those who were left behind did indeed face repression, small errors such as this do a slight disservice to an otherwise incredibly educational and rigorously reconstructed work of history.

Still, Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge is a fantastic window into the successes and struggles of free and enslaved people of color in this period. It also deals frankly with some of the ugliest truths about America's founding and the deeply flawed men credited with its creation.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the complicated racial politics of the "founding fathers" as shown in Never Caught, The Story of Ona Judge. How and why did men who claimed to be committed to liberty found a country that preserved and enshrined racial slavery in its laws? 

  • Why is it important to learn about the lives of individual enslaved people? How do their stories enrich our understanding of American history?

  • How do documents, such as letters or newspapers, help historians reconstruct the lives of people in the past? How do historians use clues from documents to fill in the blanks or speculate about what may have or must have happened?

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