I finished reading Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez about 48 hours ago and the story is haunting me. It’s Perkins-Valdez first novel and let me tell you, she totally nails this little gem of historical fiction.
Wench is set in the mid-1800’s at a vacation destination near Xenia, OH, which was frequented by well to-do northerners, white slave owners and their slave mistresses. The resort did exist and Perkins-Valdez crafts an incredible story told by Lizzie, the wench of a Tennessee slave owner, Drayle. In fact, the land that housed this resort is now the land where Wilberforce University, the oldest private African American university, is located.
Although Lizzie enjoys the respite of leaving life on the plantation and spending time with the other wenches (Reenie, Sweet and Mawu) in Ohio, she loathes leaving her two children fathered by Drayle in Tennessee with the other slaves and Drayle’s wife, Fran. She uses this time with Drayle to plead and plot for their children’s freedom.
I’ve read plenty of slave narratives, and I guess until I read Wench, I processed these stories, the details and brutality of slavery on an intellectual level, but throughout the reading of this book, I had visceral reactions to the absolute degradation these slave women endured daily. Perkins-Valdez made me feel and understand in a way I never did before, the total lack of control the slaves had over every inch of their existence. In one brutal scene, her owner in front of the hotel guests, free Black employees and other slaves rapes Mawu. Mawu was singled out for this public humiliation because Lizzie disclosed to Drayle, Mawu’s plans for escape because Lizzie was afraid what the slave catchers would do with Mawu if caught. Lizzie’s backward rational was rooted in sincere concern for Mawu. Perkins-Valdez seamlessly explores the complexity of the relationships these women have with the wives of their slave owners and the other slaves on their plantations.
Unlike the other slaves, Lizzie doesn’t allow herself to really dream of freedom. She dreams of it for her children and sees her lot in life as Drayle’s mistress as their real opportunity to achieve both an education and freedom. When confronted with the opportunity to flee, Lizzie cannot fathom leaving her children in slavery. Deep down, when I allow myself to imagine being in Lizzie’s shoes, I know I’d probably follow her footsteps back to my children.