May 8, 2010


Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
2010 Amisted
Finished on 4/28/10
Rating: 3/5 (Good)
FTC Disclosure: Received final book from publisher

Product Description

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.


  1. Anonymous1:40 PM

    I'm sorry that this one wasn't quite the thing, Les. It's frustrating when you are expecting so much and then it just doesn't quite work for you. Guess a lot of that is personal taste, but still.

    Have you heard about THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA? Again Southern fiction. Getting pretty good reviews or the few I've read have been good.

  2. I was hoping you'd rate this better than that! I've been dying to get my hands on a copy of it!

  3. This book doesn't seem to be my cup of tea, but if you're looking for a good Holocaust novel (gracious, that sounds awful), try Sarah's Key.

  4. I'm sorry you didn't like this one better. I would think that a book like this is one that should have a strong emotional pull and if it didn't obviously I can understand why you were underwhelmed.

  5. Kay - You know, it wasn't a great book, but I'm not sorry I took the time to read it.

    I've got an ARC of The Queen of Palmyra somewhere around here. I'll have to move it up in my stacks.

    Kathy - I'm sorry you didn't win the drawing. Maybe you can get the book from your library.

    Teabird - I have a copy of Sarah's Key and have heard great things about it. I hope to get to it sooner than later. :)

    Iliana - Yep. And it just reinforces what an incredible story The Help truly was.

  6. Oh. I was hoping this was going to be a good find. Bummer. I have The Kitchen House on my TBR Shelves. It has terrific reviews, but that doesn't sway me too much any more. I'm very curious, though.

  7. Joy - Unfortunately, this is going to be one of those forgettable novels. At least for me.

    I've heard good things about The Kitchen House, but I need to take a break from this popular theme/plot line. I keep expecting another book like The Help. I should simply be satisfied and move on.


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