South Florida Times Intern
The friendship and kinship that can form and the evolution of relationships between slave women and their masters is the focus of Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fascinating first novel, Wench.
Perkins-Valdez explores the relationships between four white slave owners and their black slave mistresses and shakes up any preconceived notions about these relationships, while making for a page-turning story.
It is a subject that seems to capture the imagination of many people but, for me, it has often been somewhat off-putting and depressing to think about.
I’ve never been drawn to any of the many fiction and nonfiction accounts of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings that I’ve seen on the bookshelves. But Wench was lauded by some as a book that really explores the depth and complexity of such arrangements, so I put aside my distaste for the topic and delved in.
Wench attempts to recreate the life of a slave taken each summer from the plantation by her master to stay with him at a resort. Its lyrical prose depicts four women from four different plantations who are brought to Tawawa House, where they cast off the literal and figurative shackles of their daily lives. There, they are free of the hatred of their mistresses and the disdain of their fellow slaves and “play house” for a summer with their owners.
The novel’s ficitional Tawawa House in Ohio is modeled after a resort that once stood where Wilberforce University stands today. The resort discreetly houses the masters and their slave bedmates, despite its location in free territory and the distaste many, including the free blacks who work in the place, have for their summer guests.
The story follows the women over the course of several summers in the 1850s; all of them have complicated relationships with their masters. They are from different states and plantations and the summer trips are a getaway for them and their masters, many of whom have legal white wives whom they leave at home.
Lizzie, whose voice we hear most, first began seeing her master Dalton when she was 13 and he “courted” her as he taught her to read. She spends much of the time trying to convince him to free her two children and sometimes feel as if she really loves him.
Lizzie’s compassion towards Dalton stands in marked contrast to the more pronounced hostility of Mawu towards her master. Mawu constantly plots escapes from the resort, which is temptingly located in a free state and her best bet to securing her freedom.
Rounding out the foursome are Sweet, who has five children back home from her master, and Reenie, an older slave whose master is also her brother.
Perkins-Valdez manages to deftly capture the strangeness of the situation for these slave women. They are both reviled for their position and depended on to request favors from the master on behalf of other slaves.
Lizzie is pleased by the whiteness of her children but identifies herself as black and allies herself with other black women.
The women are at times proud to be with their masters, such as at a formal dinner hosted for them one night during their stay at the resort. At other times they feel a deep resentment for the men who own them.
An example of this can be found in Mawu’s first interaction with the other women. She refuses to allow them to plait her fiery red hair because her master Tip does not like to see her that way. Yet she says she hates him with a passion. And, despite his claims that he loves her, Tip’s brutal and public violence towards her in one disturbing scene of the novel proves otherwise.
There are points when the book lags, especially towards the end. As I neared the conclusion, I really just wanted Perkins-Valdez to get on with it and let me know if the women were going to run away to freedom or not.
Overall, though, the book has a fluid pace and the writing is lyrical and at times moving. For these characters to both love the children from these uneven relationships and in some way to love the men who keep them in bondage is a strange set-up.
Still, Perkins-Valdez, a Creative Writing teacher at the University of Pugeot Sound in Washington, was able to present a picture of what, I imagine, the lives of these women was really like.