Tuesday, June 11, 2013

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

A few years ago, we met Dave in Labab Carrick Hill's wonderful picture book Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, illustrated by Bryan Collier.  This year, we meet Dave again in Andrea Cheng's new verse novel for middle graders.

In Etched in Clay, Cheng imagines Dave's life from the day he was bought for $500. at auction as a strong, intelligent young man approximately 17 years old.  He was bought in 1815 by Harvey Drake as a slave to help dig up clay for the Potterville Stoneware Manufactory, a business founded by relatives Abner and Amos Landrum.   Drake, now a partner in the business, gives the new slave the name Dave.

One day, while watching Master Drake turning a pot, Dave is asked if he would like to learn how to do it.  Dave turns out to be a quick learner and an imaginative artisan, displaying more talent than most in throwing, shaping and glazing good looking saleable clay pots and jars.   And he enjoys creating different kinds in various sizes for different uses.

One day, Drake's wife Sarah, a religious woman, tells her husband to give Dave a spelling book to help in learn to read, so he may read the Scriptures and be saved.  Defying the law against it, Dave does learn to read as well as write and soon he is etching his name on the pots and jars he creates.  Later, he begins to write short verses on them.  Even when he is told to stop do this, Dave defies the order and continues to express himself.

Dave's own life isn't quite as satisfying as his life as a potter.  Because he is property, he has no freedom.  He is bought and sold several times to various members of the Drake and Landrum family.  His first wife Eliza is sold despite his begging to spare her.  His second wife is taken away to live elsewhere, and even the young stepsons he has grown to love are sold.  And one night, Dave got so drunk, he laid on the railroad tracks to rest and lost a leg when the train ran over it, saving him from being moved to Louisiana, but making other things more difficult to do.

Etched in Clay is the story of Dave's life as Cheng imagined it to be like based on what little known facts there are about this gifted potter and his exquisite pottery, often using the very words Dave etched in clay to piece it together.  It is written in a series of spare free verse poems from the perspective of not only Dave but of every important person in his life, creating not just Dave's biography but giving the reader a more rounded sense of what his life really might have been like:
Someday the world will read
my word etched in clay
on the side of this jar
and know about the shackles
around out legs
and the whips
upon our backs.
I am not afraid
to write on a jar
and fire it hot
so my word.
can never be erased (pg 63-64)
Dave and Eliza
Not only did Cheng write the poems in Etched in Clay, but she has also created brilliant woodcuts to illustrate them.  The simple black and white woodcuts, a common form of graphic illustration in the 19th century, have a rather primitive folk art feel to them reflecting the crude conditions in which the slaves were forced to live.

Cheng has included a map of South Carolina showing places relevant to Dave's life and a short who's who of the different narrators used in the book as well as an afterward, history of Edgefield Pottery (one of the places Dave made pots and jars), some of Dave's poems and a list of sources used.

Etched in Clay is an unforgettable, inspiring story of a quiet rebel and artisan that is not to be missed.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

You can download a Classroom Guide for Etched in Clay HERE

You can see how Andrea Cheng made the woodcuts for Etched in Clay HERE

You can see a wonderful example of a Jar made by Dave HERE 


  1. Definitely going to look into this one...sounds like a powerful study.

  2. Wow, what a powerful book. So excited to have this come out as a chapter book in free verse!


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