May 8, 2010
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Finished on 4/28/10
Rating: 3/5 (Good)
FTC Disclosure: Received final book from publisher
An ambitious and startling debut novel that follows the lives of four women at a resort popular among slaveholders who bring their enslaved mistresses
wench \'wench\ n. from Middle English "wenchel," 1 a: a girl, maid, young woman; a female child.
Tawawa House in many respects is like any other American resort before the Civil War. Situated in Ohio, this idyllic retreat is particularly nice in the summer when the Southern humidity is too much to bear. The main building, with its luxurious finishes, is loftier than the white cottages that flank it, but then again, the smaller structures are better positioned to catch any breeze that may come off the pond. And they provide more privacy, which best suits the needs of the Southern white men who vacation there every summer with their black, enslaved mistresses. It's their open secret.
Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet are regulars at Tawawa House. They have become friends over the years as they reunite and share developments in their own lives and on their respective plantations. They don't bother too much with questions of freedom, though the resort is situated in free territory–but when truth-telling Mawu comes to the resort and starts talking of running away, things change.
To run is to leave behind everything these women value most–friends and families still down South–and for some it also means escaping from the emotional and psychological bonds that bind them to their masters. When a fire on the resort sets off a string of tragedies, the women of Tawawa House soon learn that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the most inhuman, brutal of circumstances–all while they are bearing witness to the end of an era.
An engaging, page-turning, and wholly original novel, Wench explores, with an unflinching eye, the moral complexities of slavery.
Just as with recipes, I'm always searching for something better. I loved The Book Thief and continue to look for another Holocaust book that will wow me as Zusak's novel did. I can't praise Kathyrn Stockett's amazing debut novel, The Help, highly enough. And yet I continue to reach for other books set in the South, dealing with racial injustice, hoping to come across another stellar read. I wish I could tell you that Wench is that book. Unfortunately, it only just barely kept my interest. It took quite a few pages to draw me in, and while I liked it well enough to complete, it never hit that sweet spot.
I sympathized with Lizzie's situation as slave and mistress:
She was just a slave like any other—beaten, used, and made to feel no different than a cow or a goat or a chicken.
However, I never felt a strong emotional pull toward her or any of the other characters. My sister-in-law read the book before me and said it was a quick read, but I wound up spending over two weeks with the book.
On the desire to learn versus the power of a slave-owner:
He brought her books. The first word she learned to read and write was "she" and it delighted her so much she wrote it everywhere she could. She wrote it in the biscuit batter with her spoon. She dug it in the dirt out back with a stick. She sketched it in the steamy windows when it rained. When she pricked her palm with a kitchen knife, she squeezed the skin until she could write her new word out with blood on a scrap of cloth. She traced the word with her fingers on the smooth parts of his body while they lay together in the storeroom at night.
She was afraid of him, but with each reading lesson she allowed him to take one more step with her. At first, he told her he just wanted to touch her tiny breast. Then he said he just wanted to place his hand on her hip. At first, he asked to touch her. Later, he did not. Each touch was like a payment for his kindness.
She gathered a stockpile of books, precious gifts from him, and hid them behind the flour sacks in the storeroom. She couldn't read most of them yet, but she enjoyed turning the pages, fingering each book's binding, making out the page numbers as she learned to count and figure.
I have to admit that had I not received the book from the publisher, I still would have been inclined to give it a read. Who could resist that gorgeous cover?!
Final Thoughts: Good, but not of the same caliber as The Help, Mudbound or Beloved. Maybe I should try The Kitchen House. I hear that's quite good!
Listen to (or read) an interview with the author on NPR.
Visit Diane's blog to read a more glowing review of this book.