Tuesday, January 5, 2010
1853: Nestled in the secluded countryside near Dayton, Ohio--the free state, Ohio--is a stream whose waters are well-known for their healing and restorative properties. This may be why wealthy whites, both Northern and Southern, like to spend their summers at Tawawa, a hotel resort there (for wealthy free black people, there is a well-separated resort nearby). Among those who come up each summer are a number of plantation owners from Louisiana and Tennessee who, conveniently separated from their wives for the summer, bring their slave mistresses up to keep them company. These slave mistresses, brought to free soil rife with bounty hunters, must spend summer after summer together watching the free blacks around them live in relative luxury, as their masters have their children held hostage back at their plantations, a deterrent to thinking too hard about the possibilities of the short, dangerous dash to freedom. A perfect storm.
Tawawa is an overlooked piece of American history and a likely template for a powerful novel. In Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez offers a new and nuanced depiction of American slavery in several of its forms. Lizzie, the 23-year-old woman at the novel's heart, has been her master Drayle's mistress since she was thirteen, and has born him two children where his barren wife has produced none. She lives in the guest bedroom in Drayle's plantation's big house, and her children have not (as yet) known field work or the whip. Lizzie entertains unsuppressible hope that Drayle will eventually see them as his children and not his property and free them. In the meantime, she uses her slender margin of power to pull favors for other slaves where she can.
For Lizzie, the temptation to run is not what it is to some of her mistress friends--Mawu, dragged North much against her wishes, has good reason to hate her master with her physically violent fury. Reenie, quiet and older than the other women, is hiding dark dark secrets that run much deeper than Lizzie realizes. As their and other stories mix and change over the summer, Lizzie and each of her friends must ask themselves difficult questions about their loyalties, love, and the actual value of freedom.
Perkins-Valdez's writing is both page-turning and picturesque. She does not indulge in graphic description but rather brings her narrative color through calculated understatement. Even those who find the subject difficult to read about or tired are likely to get something from this thoughtful and original work.