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Friday, March 05, 2010

Wench as Thought-Provoking as it is Heartbreaking

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Stories didn't get told unless they had to. Stories were for remembering, and none of the women wanted to tell how they had gotten there. When they told their stories, they preferred to tell the ones about that faraway place. They preferred to tell ones they had patched together in their heads, hundreds of oral remnants whispered in dark slave cabins" (55).

There's a short time every year when the slave women get to feel like human beings. They're mistresses of their own homes, cooking and cleaning only for themselves and their men, dressing up for dinner, gossipping with their girlfriends, even taking occasional dips in the pond. It's not freedom, but it's the closest thing the women have ever known. For Lizzie, Sweet and Reenie, it's a chance to experience something that's not exactly happiness, but not quite the usual misery either.

Each summer, wealthy plantation owners gather at Tawawa House to hunt, fish and enjoy "extracurricular activities" away from the watchful eyes of their wives. Along with their fishing poles and hunting rifles, the men haul their favorite slaves to the Ohio resort, including their most desirable "wenches." Tawawa House sits in free territory, surrounded by sympathetic Quakers and Methodists, but the slave mistresses know that they cannot run. Beatings are not uncommon, even in this vacation setting - best to pretend its freedom rather than longing for the real thing.

These are the rules by which the three women are used to abiding ... until Mawu comes along. With her light skin, red hair and uppity mannerisms, she sets herself apart from the other slaves. Her bold ways shock the other women. Mawu's intent on escaping into free territory, an act that could endanger herself and her new friends. With no children to worry about, Mawu can afford her rebellious attitude - the others would be risking far, far more. Lizzie, especially, can't bear the thought of abandoning her kids. Sure, they look just like their father - pale-skinned and bright-eyed, but even that doesn't guarantee them the Master's protection. The lure of freedom is so close for the Tawawa women, but so, so far away. Even when a fire breaks out, giving them the best chance of escape they've ever had, the slaves hesitate. What are they willing to risk to save their own lives? Will Mawu convince them to follow her lead to freedom? Or will she simply guide them all to their deaths? Amidst the horror of slavery, where even a shred of happiness is hard won, will the wenches be content with their tiny slice? Or will it only whet their appetites for the real thing?

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez explores this little-known, but historically-accurate piece of slave history. She looks at what it means to live and love under the most complicated and trying of circumstances. It's an unsentimental novel that is as thought-provoking as it is heartbreaking. Like Toni Morrison's Beloved, Wench is not an easy or happy read, nor should it be. It's bleak, disturbing, an impressive and important debut, but one that may be too difficult for the casual reader.

(Readalikes: Beloved by Toni Morrison; reminded me a tiny bit of The Help by Kathryn Stockett)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at HarperCollins. Thanks!


  1. I have this one on my Kindle and plan to read it this year. (I don't say soon because the TBR is getting huge, huge, huge!)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think I'll have to be in the mood for something more serious when I pick it up.

  2. This sounds really great - thank you for a well written and informative review. It is a corner of history that I do not know much about so I would be very interested to learn more.

    Thanks for sharing


  3. I really liked this book, but you make a good point about it being a difficult read--it's not a general feel-good read for the casual reader.

    Great review!

  4. I thought Beloved was wonderful and intensely disturbing. I hadn't heard of Wench before. Thanks for the great review.

  5. I'm about 50 pgs into this book -- and I'm trying to do my best to keep reading -- just hasn't kept my interest. I will keep plodding along based on your review.


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