Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dolen Perkins-Valdez/WENCH


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.

6 comments:

Rebecca :) said...

I have this on my wish list. Great review!

Jane Steen said...

Sounds intriguing. I enjoy your choice of books.

Pamala Knight said...

Just finished this and agree with our review. I was riveted and on edge throughout the entire book. At the very beginning when the slaves are at Tawawa and talk arises of the resort through the woods that hosts the free people of color, I knew that the lure of escaping (one way or another) would be strong.

I loved Lizzy for both her strength and her innocence. That she had the capacity to love her owner rang true and was very well done. It wasn't a one sided, irrational, made up kind of affection that sometimes infiltrates narratives such as these, but fleshed out--explained even. Drayle uses her affection to keep her in line even though in the end, when he fears that won't be enough, he finally threatens violence. But I wonder if Drayle would've made good on his threat to Lizzy concerning Nate. I wonder because when Lizzy laments to Phillip about her inability to get their master to free her children, Phillip gives a different perspective on the reluctance by reminding Lizzy that the children belong to Drayle too.

At first, I was disappointed that we didn't get more of Mawu's story because the beginning almost promised that her entanglements with Lizzy would drive the story but I think that we got her character in all its different shades through the story that was told.

It was a much faster read than I expected, but a very satisfying one.

moonrat said...

Pamala--yeah, I too was disappointed that Mawu wasn't more present. After all, she's a real casualty of the story--she makes a lot of sacrifices, which in the end amount to very little. I was frustrated on behalf of her character with how things played out.

Pamala Knight said...

MR, you're right. Mawu was the most defiant of the women, the recipient of that awful episode after the first attempt at running and then in the end, she's captured because of the enormous reward Tip has offered for her. You know that he wants to deal with her personally and that it would be terrible.

In a way I understood trying to minimize the violence of her situation, but I agree that she IS the main casualty of the story and was sketched with a scant amount of words. I would've enjoyed a more fleshed-out back story on her too.

Kristin Dodge said...

Just posted my review... I didn't dare read yours until I had written mine! We had the same ideas, and now I am thinking the same thing about Mawu. I wonder, though, if perhaps her back-story wasn't given as a representative of all the slaves who lost their stories...