Saturday, March 9, 2013

Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench opens in 1852, with four slave women "vacationing" with their masters at a resort in southern Ohio. They are fascinated by the free blacks who work at the resort and stunned when they see the resort frequented by wealthier free African Americans within walking distance from the cottages where they are staying.

One of the women, Lizzie, is hoping to convince her master, Drayle, to free their two children, but she is unsuccessful; nor will he agree to sell his slave Phillip, who has fallen in love with a local free woman. Nonetheless, Lizzie has convinced herself that she loves Drayle. When a woman named Muwa tries to convince the group of slaves to make a run for freedom, Lizzie tells Drayle of the plan, and Muwa is brutally beaten and raped.

Through a flashback, we learn how Lizzie and Drayle's "relationship" started and see the bizarre role that white women play in these twisted domestic arrangements. Drayle's wife Fran physically attacks Lizzie, tries to sell her, and finally seems to accept her place in the household. At the same time, she alternately rejects and coddles Lizzie's two children.

In 1853, the four women return to the Tawawa House resort with their masters and, without revealing everything that happens, it can safely be said that the visit is packed with dramatic developments. When Lizzie returns to the Drayle plantation that summer, she does not believe they will return the next summer, and yet they do--this time with Fran in tow. Through the events of the final summer, Lizzie begins to develop a an independent sense of self and has, thankfully, awakened to the impossibility of meaningful love with a man who "owns" her.

Wench is in many ways surprising and, while it is not a great novel, it does open the reader's eyes to the complexities of the sexual and domestic arrangements among slaves and the families that "owned" them.

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