Fuse #8

Monday, March 26, 2007

Review of the Day: The Escape of Oney Judge

The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom, written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $11.20.

When you consider the pedestal on which our Founding Fathers are placed in the world of children's literature, it's not surprising that the story of George Washington's slaves has never been adequately told for the younger set. A slave owning first president just doesn't gel with the general George-Washington-chopped-down-a-cherry-tree mythos. You want something on his wooden chompers? Read Deborah Chandra's amusing, George Washington's Teeth. You prefer a silly story involving a bunch of wacky barnyard animals? George Washington's Cows, by David Small is the book for you. But you won't find runaway slaves mentioned in "Teeth" and you'd be hard pressed to find a single black amongst any of the white servents in "Cows". Now Farrar, Straus & Giroux (who, fascinatingly enough, was the publisher of all three of these books) has published Caldecott Award winning author/illustrator Emily Arnold McCully's newest biography, "The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom". From the moment I read this subtitle I was hooked. Few people would have the guts to talk about this tie-in between the Washingtons and the girl who got away from them. Trust McCully to carry about with her a backbone made of iron and enough facts to blow away even the most skeptical of critics.

She was the daughter of a white indentured servant and a black slave mother in 1773, and right from the start Oney Judge was quick. Because of both this and her light skin she was taken on as one of Mrs. Washington's sewing circle slaves, and her skills with a needle made her invaluable to her mistress. When George Washington was to become President of the United States of America, Oney moved with the family to Philadelphia. It was there that she learned that an adult slave who lived there six months was required, by law, to be free. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that Martha Washington intended to will Oney to her granddaughter Eliza in the event of her own death. Oney, desperate to escape before the family returned to Mount Vernon, threw herself on the mercy of some freed slaves and Quakers who, in turn, helped her escape to New Hampshire. Author Emily McCully tells everything from Oney's early years to the multiple attempts the Washingtons and their friends made to lure, threaten, and trick Oney into returning back to Mount Vernon. In the end, Oney remained free and the extensive Author's Note at the back recounts how she continued to live in "proud, independent poverty for the rest of her life."

Much of this book owes its existence to Henry Wiencek's, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. It is more important than ever to teach our kids that while the Founding Fathers did many good things and created a remarkable new nation, in their personal lives they were sometimes less than stellar human beings. Martha Washington in particular comes off looking quite the self-satisfied slave owner in this title. She'd had slaves for many years, and she apparently had no intention of freeing any of them, even in the event of her own death. So McCully knows how to just give kids the facts without going out of her way to conjure up stereotypes. Martha Washington isn't pictured with evil leers and a nasty eye. She's a product of her times to some extent and yet she's also completely blind to the needs of the people around her. McCully did find it necessary to note at the end that, for George, he didn't say anything publicly against slavery but that he "made provisions in his will for the freeing of his own slaves after Martha's death." Kids can make of that what they would like.

The storytelling in this book proceeds at a swift clip. McCully's an old hand at non-fiction works, having put her skills to the test with such titles as The Pirate Queen and The Ballot Box Battle. Considering the scant amount of information there must have been out there on Oney, you have to admire the sheer number of Sources and Websites cited by the author at the end of her book. And her storytelling is consistently interesting, even if she has to rely on creating dialogue for the sake of keeping the story interesting. I was especially taken with the moments in the story where Oney, thinking herself safe, is barraged with people trying to get her to return to the Washingtons. The mere fact that Washington didn't take Oney to court is explained beautifully. "The President would have to go to court to force a slave to return. He won't do that - it would only cause a scandal in the North." And his now sterling reputation might have tarnished some as a result, I'm sure. McCully does choose to end the story in a manner so abrupt that I almost wonder if she ran out of time and didn't have a chance to create a final image of Oney living on her own alongside the sentence, "For the rest of her long life, Oney Judge had no mistress but herself." Instead we get a very hurried encapsulation of her final flight with the picture of a man helping her into a cart at night. The book is excellent on telling a story but certainly lacking in any kind of conclusion.

Those of you familiar with McCully's watercolor style will take to her images in this book. I can offer no criticism here, and not being familiar with the clothing of this time period I can't comment on how historically accurate McCully has been. Nonetheless, the book does a good job of breaking up the text around the images in the story. Nothing ever feels stilted or slapdash, since pictures are constantly jumping above, below, and around a given section of writing.

So is it historical fiction based on a true story or is it non-fiction? The Library of Congress subject headings all consider this book to be fiction, and in a way you can concede the point. After all, to make the book interesting McCully has to rely on putting words into her characters mouths that may seem plausible, but that can't be backed up with any adequate source material. That won't stop some libraries from squeezing, "Oney Judge" onto their biography shelves, but be careful to bear in mind the author's limitations.

Recently the U.S. Mint revealed that the newest dollar coin was going to feature the image of George Washington on it. I figure that if your kids are going to go about seeing this man's face everywhere, the least you can do is give them a story about one of the women he and his wife owned. Exciting and factual, "The Escape of Oney Judge" is one of those must-read titles for any child asked to do a biography of George Washington for a school project. By all means mention his triumphs in battle and acts as a President. Just remember too that one woman did all she could to escape from under his thumb.

Other Titles: If historical fiction's your bag, check out the middle reader title Taking Liberty: The Story of Oney Judge, George Washington's Runaway Slave by Ann Rinaldi (though you'll note the inaccuracy of the title).

Previous Online Reviews of This Title: Planet Esme. You can also see a Q&A with Emily McCully regarding this book at the Powell's website.

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At 9:49 AM , Blogger Sarah Louise said...

I heart Emily McCully--I'll track this down at work tomorrow!!


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