Nonfiction November Week 3: Stranger Than Fiction

This month just gets better and better! The stranger than fiction week in Nonfiction November is hosted by Christopher @ Plucked From the Stacks.

Stranger Than Fiction (November 14-18): This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that almost don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.

My nonfiction reading has been decently tame this year. Lots of self-improvement! But the book that just felt like it couldn’t possibly be real was Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.


A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave who risked it all to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital, after a brief stay in New York. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and nine slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

Impeccably researched, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father. from Goodeads


Americans love George Washington. Well, the myth of George Washington. From the fabricated story of George being unable to tell a lie through the enduring legacy that he was a superior General who often won battles, he is referenced in American history as irreproachable. Realistically, George Washington simply fits into so many archetypes in American folklore that his less savory character traits are often ignored or buried. Perpetuating this malarky is annoying.

Still, I was decently shocked to see George and Martha fall even farther from grace during my reading of Never Caught. I knew that they had slaves. When it is brought up in American education, the emphasis on their owning slaves is the magnanimous freeing of slaves. You know, after they died and didn’t need free labor any longer. Or, in Martha’s mind, free George’s slaves to avoid an uprising because there were so many of them. No mention of rotating the slaves back and forth to Mount Vernon to avoid accidentally freeing them while in the North, nope. The motivation matters and, when it came to Ona Judge, the Washington’s only motivation was recapture.

But they lengths that the Washington’s went to in order to recapture Ona Judge were, honestly, appalling. The misuse of government funds alone! Attempt after attempt to bring Ona back into the fold of the Washington family, where she was intended to be a wedding present, just felt like it couldn’t be real. But, the book is meticulously researched by Dunbar. Ona even participated in two interviews providing much needed information about people history would rather forget. Still, numerous reviews of the book question the historical accuracy as this book paints the Washington’s in a less-than flattering light.

My biggest complaint about the book is that I believe it is mis-titled. There is less of Ona Judge in the book than I would have liked and much more of the Washingtons working the system to avoid freeing their slaves. If you pick up this book, which I highly recommend, be prepared for the emphasis to be on George and Washington. Of course, this makes sense considering the amount of historical documentation that is available when comparing the Washingtons to Ona Judge but, still, I was slightly disappointed to not learn more of the woman who thwarted the strongest and most influential family in America.

Tell me, please! What Nonfiction book felt stranger than fiction to you?


17 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 3: Stranger Than Fiction

Add yours

  1. I’ve heard lots of praise for this one but yours is the first review to really give me a good sense of it. It does sound like a perfect fit for this topic, since as you put it so well, we generally have a very different perception, indeed a myth, of George Washington.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The rabbit hold for me on this book are the people on goodreads that are slamming the book as fiction or under-researched because it doesn’t match their understanding of Washington. These myths are deeply ingrained in so many people!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fascinating read this would be. Great review b the way.
    In Canada we are looking back at the politicians who brought in residential schools and learning more about the background to this terrible system of genocide. Even the Pope has apologized. Now statues to some of these men are being taken down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have been watching Canada’s reaction to the new information about the residential schools (I have a country crush on Canada). It is interesting to see history reframed isn’t it? Hopefully you don’t have the militant deniers that America seems to have at every corner.


  3. This sounds fascinating! Living in Northern VA, I’ve been to Mount Vernon many times and I’m glad they are now really telling some of these stories about slavery. This sounds like an important story to tell.

    Liked by 1 person

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