Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet, by Andrea Cheng

Published July 1, 2013 by Dagmar

Etched in ClayThis is a very moving book, written in verse, about Dave the Potter a slave who lived in South Carolina in the 1800s.  Andrea Cheng has woven the voices of Dave’s various masters, with Dave’s own voice and the voices of his two wives, Eliza and Lydia.  The book moves quickly and is filled with beautiful woodcuts that help illustrate the story.  I read this book in one sitting and immediately handed it to my 12 year old son to read.  He also read it in one sitting.

Dave was bought on the auction block when he was 17.  Bought to dig clay in the river in South Carolina, Dave’s master, Harvey Drake, the owner of a pottery company, teaches him to throw pottery.  Drake sees that Dave is talented at creating pottery and soon, Dave no longer digs for clay.  He only creates pottery.  Drake marries Dave to a woman named Eliza, who is sold off after a few years.  Dave misses her terribly.  When Drake, at his wife’s urging, helps Dave learn to read, Dave not only reads, he starts to think in verse.  Soon, he wants to write down his words on the pots he creates.  But, slaves who could write were feared in South Carolina.  In fact, a slave caught writing would be punished by lashing.  Despite the danger, Dave bravely continues to write verse on the pots he creates, showing the world that he made those beautiful pots. Dave moves from master to master throughout his life and even works as a type setter for a time before returning to creating pottery. He is married a second time to a woman named Lydia who has two sons he loves.  Again, they are taken away from him.  Finally, after the Civil War ends, Dave is free.  Yet, he continues to work for his last master, Lewis Miles in Edgefield.

This book portrays the cruelty of slavery in a meaningful way that I think will resonate with students.  Readers really feel his hurt from the time when his master decides what to call him to the loss of his wives and stepsons and the indignity of being told it is dangerous for him to read and write.

Highly recommended for middle and high school.  A Junior Library Guild selection.


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