BOOK REVIEW: ‘Never Caught’ by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

c.2017, Atria
$26 ($35 Canada)
254 pages

Run, run, run.

Some days, it feels like that’s all you do. Run the kids to school, dash to work, rush with errands, and run yourself ragged before bed. You’re always on the go, always moving, and in the new book “Never Caught” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, your breath isn’t the only thing to catch.

Twenty-one-year-old Mulatto Betty must’ve breathed a sigh of relief.

When Martha Custis married George Washington, slaves were shuffled as the mistress moved to Mount Vernon. Miraculously and notably, Betty moved and was allowed to keep her baby son with her. She was pregnant, too, by a white man with an “indenture agreement” and an eye for opportunity; their eldest daughter was born in mid-1773, and given the unusual name of Ona Maria.

At age 10, “Oney” Judge was brought inside the Washington household, in service to Martha Washington. There, the illiterate girl learned to care for Martha’s clothing, to bathe the mistress, tend her grandchildren and soothe anxieties — one of which was that Martha’s husband had been asked to be the nation’s first president, a post that Martha Washington wasn’t keen on — and neither was Judge.

But, of course, Washington did take the position, which meant a household move from Virginia to Manhattan (the site of the first Executive Mansion) for the family and a handful of slaves, including Judge. It’s there, says Dunbar, where Judge most certainly tasted freedom through rare autonomy.

She was therefore undoubtedly unhappy — but couldn’t speak her mind — when the Executive Mansion was relocated to Philadelphia in 1790.

But there was a twist, for Judge and for the Washingtons: laws in Pennsylvania mandated freedom for any slave living in the state for six continuous months, meaning that the Washingtons would shuttle their slaves between Philadelphia and Virginia, to “reset” their status. Judge surely knew what was going on, but when she learned that she would be permanently gifted as a wedding present to Martha’s moody granddaughter, she could stand things no longer.

And so, as the Washingtons dined on a Saturday evening in May, 1796, Oney Judge slipped out the door and ran …

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a thriller as heart-pounding as the one I found in this book. Of course, “Never Caught” is all true.

But Judge’s astounding, audacious story isn’t the only thing author Erica Armstrong Dunbar brings to vivid life: she also sets the tone by explaining the times in which Judge lived, and what life was like for slaves and whites alike. Thanks to Dunbar, it’s easy to feel the busyness of Manhattan, to absorb the fear Judge surely felt, and to picture the elegant drawing rooms of the Washington home. On that note, we learn some not-so-savory things about George Washington, which makes the meat of this story an even bigger reason for gleefulness.

Now you have to find out what happened. If you love biographies, history, stories about remarkable women, or really exciting thrillers, “Never Caught” you need to read this book. Run for it.

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