BOOK REVIEW: A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A mercy by Toni MorrisonA Mercy
By Toni Morrison
Completed November 27, 2011

“It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human.” – page 195

A Mercy has a quietness about it – as if each character is whispering a secret in my ear. But the message was strong, powerful and riveting. I haven’t read a book quite like it before.

The story centers on the trade of Florens, a literate slave girl who comes to the home of Jacob Vaark. Florens’ mother insisted the girl be traded away from her, and as Florens settles into her new home, she ponders why her mother would be so willing to give her up. While at Jacob’s home, Florens falls under the care of Lina, a Native American woman who tends to the farm and household. Also at the home are Sorrow, a supposedly dim-witted slave, and Rebekka, Jacob’s wife.

When Jacob dies unexpectedly, the entire structure of the home unravels, thread by thread. Rebekka is stricken with illness, Florens is dispatched to find help from her lover, Sorrow gives birth to a baby, and Lina can’t function out of worry about Florens. Chapters are divided among the characters, adding new perspectives to the tragedy. The most telling chapter was the last, when Florens’ mother told her side of the story.

The plot doesn’t move really, but as the story weaves in and out among the characters, you get a hard look at the effects of slavery in 1680’s America. The moral of the story, though whispered, was still loud and clear: Slavery, in all forms, destroys lives. (  )

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BOOK REVIEW: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House by Kathleen GrissomThe Kitchen House
By Kathleen Grissom
Completed September 7, 2011

When we hear about the “labor force” of the antebellum South, we often hear about enslaved Africans, forced to work the land in an unimaginably oppressive life. Kathleen Grissom, in her debut novel, The Kitchen House, depicts another type of forced labor – the indentured servant – in her novel about family, slavery and plantation life.

Set in the early 1800’s, the story opens when Lavinia arrives at Tall Oaks, a plantation in Virginia, as a young girl fresh off a ship from Ireland. Lavinia is an indentured servant – left without any family – and is placed in the care of Belle, a young slave woman who works in the kitchen house. At first, Lavinia is sickly and withdrawn, but as the months progress, she becomes stronger and more dependent on her new family, led by slave Mama Mae, her husband George and their children.

The Kitchen House is Lavinia’s tale of growing up on the plantation and her struggles of being a white girl raised in a black family. The story, though, is divided between Lavinia and Belle, whose narrative offers candid views of slave life. Lavinia’s narrative is equally candid – showing everything from drug abuse to pedophilia. A lot of bad things happen to the characters in this book; it’s amazing anyone could see a light at the end of the tunnel.

I found the first half of the book to drag on, the middle to be gripping, and the ending to be rushed. Lavinia’s story, though, interested me enough to urge me forward. I question the historical accuracy of many aspects of this novel, especially how things fell together at the end, but all in all, The Great House was a good read. Fans of historical fiction should consider this book, especially if they enjoy tales about the Old South. (  )

REVIEW: Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench by Dolen Perkins-ValdezWench
By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Completed March 19, 2011

Dolen Perkins-Valdez opens her debut novel, Wench, with a historical look at the word that is the title to her book. “Wench” in its earliest form meant a female child, but as the world evolved, the meaning of “wench” changed too. By the 1850’s, “wench”  described a “colored woman of any age; a negress or mulattress, especially one in service.” It’s this latter definition that characterizes the women who make up the book, Wench.

The “wenches” in this story were enslaved women, Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu. They met as their master’s mistresses at a resort called Tawawa House in Ohio. The Tawawa House was a place where white men brought their black mistresses, without the interruption of their wives, children or other distractions, so they could enjoy them more freely. They shared the same cottages, and while the men spent time together during the day, the slave women formed tight bonds with each other, commiserating in their lives and offering hope for freedom.

We learn the most about Lizzie in this book, especially in the section that takes us back to her plantation in Tennessee. She is owned by Drayle, and together, they have two children, Nate and May. Drayle was not as physically abusive as his peers, but he knew how to tug on Lizzie’s emotions, using their children as pawns to get what he wanted from her. Drayle’s wife, Fran, also knew how to play with Lizzie psychologically, threatening to sell her to a slave trader and taking over care of her children. Throughout it all, Lizzie kept her focus on what was best for her kids, inch by inch convincing Drayle to free their children. By novel’s end, we see some progress in this direction, but you have to wonder at what price Lizzie paid to achieve her goals.

The depiction of the master-slave relationship was accurate and harrowing. Slaves were a commodity, and their white masters traded them, sold them and abused them as they saw fit. This was particularly evident in the treatment of the other slave women, whose masters pimped them out to other men, or whipped and raped their mistresses in broad daylight.

I applaud Perkins-Valdez for tackling this subject matter. Little has been written about the Tawawa House, and the author took a creative license imagining what happened to the enslaved women who traveled there. While I enjoyed the historical aspects of this novel – and the no-holds-barred approach – I was not fond of the writing style. It was such a light, breezy read, and for a topic of this brevity, it seemed to need something else: starker language, harsher words, more traumatic diction.

The pedestrian writing style, by the end of the novel, proved to be a distraction to me. Perhaps if I hadn’t read other books about this topic, namely Property by Valerie Martin, I would not feel this way. As it stands, I still recommend Wench, and I appreciate Dolen Perkins-Valdez for eluminating a much-needed light on the treatment of black women in history. (  )

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