Pick of the Day: Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet

A powerful and uplifting biography of a 19th-century slave who was also a talented artist.

black figure to the left, pale blue backgroundCHENG, Andrea. Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet. illus. by author. 144p. bibliog. maps. photos. Lee & Low. 2013. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-60060-451-5. LC 2012027280. Gr 5 Up–The pain of slavery and its disregard for human worth reverberates throughout this beautifully written, beautifully illustrated account of an enslaved potter in South Carolina in the 19th century. Cheng’s sensitive verses, written in the voice of Dave and the people involved in his life, share the man’s innermost feelings, the sensation of shaping clay on the potter’s wheel, and hints at conflicts within a slave owner’s mind. But even with a master who seems to have some appreciation of Dave’s talents, the ugliness of slavery takes over. The matter-of-fact, unfeeling way in which Eliza, Dave’s first wife, is sold off speaks volumes. Dave’s need to communicate and be noticed comes out in the risk he takes by inscribing some verse and words on the pots he creates. This deep need squelches any fear of reprisals when literacy was a punishable offense for slaves. Motivated by her belief that everyone needs to read Scriptures in order to be saved, the slave owner’s wife started Dave on his quest to read. Through all of the adversity, he stoically carries on despite being sold, despite having loved ones repeatedly taken from him, and despite losing a leg in a train accident, always spurred on by the need to communicate. Cheng has created a passionate homage to the human spirit, which speaks volumes in this brief book. Her woodcuts add another layer to the drama that unfolds in the telling. A powerful and uplifting biography.–Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ

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