Book Review: Wench: A Novel

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by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Publication Date:
List Price: $24.99
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Classification: Fiction
ISBN13: 9780061706547
Imprint: Amistad
Publisher: HarperCollins
Parent Company: News Corporation
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Read a Description of Wench: A Novel

Book Reviewed by Thumper

I had a feeling that even though we are educated enough in the institution of slavery, there are still aspects that take me by surprise.  Dolen Perkins-Valdez debut novel, Wench, is about one of those little surprises.  The story takes place in an 1853 Ohio vacation resort which serves as an intersection of time and place for a group of the slave/mistress and their masters.  The novel delves into the relationships between the women and their masters, and each other.  Wench is a graceful, unassumingly powerful novel that was infectious.  I loved it, a highly impressive debut novel.

The novel centers around one couple in particular, Lizzie and Nathan Drayle.  Lizzie is the mistress and house slave of Nathan Drayle, a poor horseman who married Francesca, who comes from a Southern family with means.  During Lizzie's relationship with Nathan, she has two children.  Francesca is unable to have children.  As Nathan's and Lizzie's relationships begin to change, Nathan begins taking Lizzie to Tawawa House, a hotel/resort in Ohio. 

Tawawa House has become the resort of choice for white Southern slave owners to bring their black slave/mistress for summer vacations.  The white men can openly display their relationships with the female slaves in a more relaxed social atmosphere and without the presences of their wives or southern society.  As Lizzie's and Nathan's summer vacation develop into an annual happening, Lizzie forms relationships with the other slave/mistress: Reenie, Sweet and the newest addition, Mawu.  As the stories of their lives and relationships with their masters unfold, the women contemplate freedom, what it means to be free and the consequences for daring to ponder or dream of it. 

I loved Wench and I was not expecting to.  When I read the summary of Wench, I thought, a slave novel with four sista-girlfriends angle.  How interesting? *rolling my eyes*  Now, I get to hear about Torneisha's great great grandmamma being head slave in the kitchen since there is no Human Resource department for her to be VP of.  I took the old knife sharpening stone out, got my knife paper sharp and I got ready to do some cutting, because I knew there was going to be blood spilt on the floor before I got done.  Perkins-Valdez fooled me.  Wench turned out to be an exciting read!

As I read the first few pages, it became real obvious that this novel was far more than my cynical perception of the slavery version of a sista-girlfriend book.  Wench covered the degradation, inhumanity, and humiliation of slavery; nothing is missed or skimmed over.  Perkins-Valdez provided a surprising little bent to the traditional slave narrative by introducing Tawawa House, a summer resort "in a free state" that specialized as a place where white men can openly display their sexual relationships with their slave/mistress without the eyes of the wives looking and telling.

First, I was, almost, barely, tempted to pooh pooh the idea of slave owners going to a northern vacation resort to be with their slave mistress.  Then, I thought again.  Goodness knows, those white men were low down enough to pull off something like this and think nothing of it.  Low-rent, bargain basement morality should come as no surprise for white men who owned slaves.  I came to believe that these types of "vacations", to the slave owners, could be seen as "normal". 

The characters are well developed and multi-dimensional.  I have to admire Perkins-Valdez and her creation of Lizzie.  My feelings for Lizzie were taken for a ride on a roller coaster.  Early in the novel, Lizzie does something that caused me to hate her guts!  When I reached the second part of the novel, my heart sank in dread because it focused on Lizzie, how her relationship with Nathan began, bringing me up to the story present.  Once I got over my hostility towards Lizzie, I was able to hear the story about Lizzie-Nathan relationship and see the dynamics and the power struggle between the two. 

Perkins-Valdez showed, through the other three slaves, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu a variation of the slave owner-slave mistress relationship.  While, Lizzie is the star of the show; the other three women was vital in order to establish a balance.  I got to see what the relationship was like when the owner and the slave had NO affection for each other (Mawu and her owner Tip); an incestuous relationship (Reenie and her owner Sir); a "caring" relationship (Sweet and her owner).  No matter the status of the relationship, each of the women would learn, without the slightest doubt that they were just slaves, powerless because they were women in a man's world.  Through Lizzie, Perkins-Valdez illustrated that although the women were not free, physically, but mentally, emotionally, no one can take or own their ability to love themselves.  This lesson is one that is as important today as it was those generations ago.

Wench crossed my desk at the right time.  I had just lifted my ban on slavery books a little while ago with Sweetsmoke by David Fuller.  You may remember Fuller presented a slavery story with an unexpected twist to the typical Roots-like novel, which can be damn depressing.  Perkins-Valdez provided a slave story with a wrinkle that, along with her storytelling abilities, keen insight into human nature, was enough to hold my attention in a death grip.  I have no problem saying that Wench is one of the best books of the year.
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