etched in clay

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

Told in virtuoso verse, this is the true story of the life of Dave, an enslaved potter who lived in the years before and after Emancipation.  Dave was an artist, most likely making over a thousand pieces of pottery in his lifetime of work of which only 170 survive today.  He inscribed some of his pieces with either his own name, his master’s name and also poetry that he wrote, brief verses that offer a glimpse into his world.  The amount of bravery that small act took is monumental, since Dave faced potential death because he was demonstrating his ability to read and write in a time when it was forbidden for slaves in South Carolina to do so.  Dave serves both as an example of the injustice and brutality of slavery and also as a remarkable example of the artistry and strength of human beings. 

Cheng tells Dave’s story in very short poems.  They are not all in Dave’s voice, sometimes instead being in the voice of his owners, his wife, or his children.  Cheng does not soften the harshness of slavery, offering poems that speak directly to the separation of families through selling them apart and the brutality of the punishments inflicted.  I would not call it unflinching, because one can sense Cheng flinching alongside the reader as she captures the moment but also makes it completely human and important. 

Cheng also did the woodcuts that accompany the poetry.  They are a harmonious combination with the subject matter thanks to their rough edges and hand-hewn feel.  Done only in black and white, they share the same powerful message as the poems.

This powerful book informs middle grade readers about a man who could have been one of the many lost faces of slavery but who through art and bravery had a voice.  Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Lee & Low Books.