Friday, March 18, 2011

"Wench" by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Summary: Tawawa House is an Ohio summer resort where white slave owners can take their slave mistresses for part of the summer.  At Tawawa House, four women form a close friendship.  Lizzie loves her master Drayle and hopes he will some day free their two children together.  Mawu hates her owner Tip and desperately wants to escape, which is all the more tantalizing in free-state Ohio.  Rounding out the group are Sweet and Reenie.  Over the course of several summers, each woman must make a choice about the price of remaining a slave and the price of attempting freedom.

Musings: One of the challenges of writing about American slavery is that so many books have already been written on it.  Perkinz-Valdez takes on one particular appalling aspect of slavery--the sexual abuse of female slaves by their white owners--through a unique setting.  Away from their owners' wives, their children, and the plantation, Lizzie, Mawu, Sweet, and Reenie are exposed to new possibilities, both exciting and dangerous.

Lizzie is the protagonist of the novel, and her story is especially uncertain.  Although she feels the pain and restrictions of slavery, most acutely for her children with Drayle, she is also treated "well" by most standards.  In fact, she deeply cares for and loves Drayle, and the small freedoms she experiences at Tawawa, where she shares a cottage with Drayle much like a wife would, bring her closer to him.  But as Lizzie also grows closer with women like Mawu, her feelings begin to change.  Lizzie's an especially interesting character because of that complexity she faces.

Probably the most difficult aspect of the book for me was the sexual abuse.  I've mentioned several other times that I find depicting sexual violence against women problematic.  I know Perkins-Valdez describes scenes and events that are an incontrovertible part of slavery, and I wouldn't suggest those parts should be hidden.  Nonetheless, I find graphic descriptions of sexual assault so sickening (which it clearly is intended to be) that it was difficult to want to continue to read the book.  Sometimes I felt the desired effect could be created with less, but that's probably more of a personal feeling.

Wench is told straightforwardly, and at times I craved a richer and more nuanced style.  I felt as though events and feelings were being told to me, rather than allowing me to experience and come to know them through the characters.  Some events happened too abruptly, and others were delayed with unnecessary suspense.

Nonetheless, Wench uses a variety of characters to explore the lives of slave women and effectively shows the ways in which sexual abuse played a role in restricting the women's lives.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

1 comment:

  1. This is a story I can read multiple times. Not only was the character development exquisite, but the plot, imagery, and language was written with class. The internal struggles of the main character were expressed perfectly. Due to some graphic scenes, I would reccomend this novel to anybody (Especially women)