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. ( )