Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
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In an immensely powerful story, Dolen Perkins-Valdez takes us to an all but forgotten place in American slavery. A decade prior to the Civil War, there was an Ohio resort called Tawana House. During its short existence from 1852-1855, it was a place where Southern landowners brought their slave/mistresses for summer retreats.
It is within this small world that Perkins-Valdez creates the lives of four “wenches,” as they were known, who come with their masters to this resort. Lizzie comes with her master, Nathan Drayle. Their relationship is hardly secret, as he shares a room with her at his home and is father to her two children. It is testimony to the male dominated culture that while resentful, Drayle’s wife tolerates this.
During the retreats at Tawana House, Lizzie becomes confidants with three other women who share her fate. Though Lizzie believes herself to be in love with Drayle and he with her, her friends are skeptical about this, and have different feelings regarding their own lovers/masters. Nevertheless, these women have much in common and share their longings, fears, and hopes.
As their friendship strengthens each summer, so do their individual strengths as they begin to see themselves as reflected in each others’ eyes. Because Ohio is a free state, there is much tension around the possibility of escape, and the women’s developing sense of independence encourages them to plan to do just that.
The reader is taken into a rarely examined corner of life for enslaved women. With the looming specter (for the reader) of the impending Civil War and emancipation, we are given a rare opportunity to behold the ending of one incredibly horrible era prior to the ushering in of one these women could barely imagine.
Amistad/HarperCollins; ISBN 978-0-06170-656-1; $14.99.
Wench: Reading Guide