Saturday, March 27, 2010

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Title: Wench
Author: Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Publisher: HarperCollins (2010)

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is historical fiction but features Tawawa House, a resort that was situated in the Free Territory of Ohio in the 1850s. The resort catered to Southern white men who vacationed there with their enslaved mistresses in the summers. Three of the mistresses regularly accompanied their masters and became friends during their time together in the summer. The story is told predominantly from Lizzie's perspective but you also get to know her friends Reenie, Sweet, and newcomer Mawu. As the book progresses Perkins-Valdez allows readers to come to know the individual women better. For each of them, the possibility of escaping into Free Territory becomes more and more realistic as the summers pass, but each woman must come to terms with the family ties that bind them to their homes before they can make a decision to escape. I wish this short description did more justice to the women of this novel and the extraordinary writing talent of Perkins-Valdez. A few sentences are necessarily far too simplistic to convey the depth of emotion that is contained within the writing and the women in Wench.

The writing really is absolutely phenomenal. As I was reading my mind kept coming back to how sparse the prose felt while still conveying such power and presence. So I tried to look at it a bit more objectively and then the word sparse just seemed ridiculous. So instead I think the best way to describe the writing is apt. It's not sparse nor is it flowery and complex; it's simply perfect. The personalities of those involved are brought so readily to life as you're reading that you don't doubt their existence for even a moment. In fact, it was so real that I often had to put the book down so that I could calm down. I often read books in only one or two sittings but I couldn't do that with this book. I was emotionally involved at every point and that was very difficult at times. The subject matter is not easy.

Violence is a part of this story but what I found particularly striking was that it was not primarily the physical violence that made me such an emotional wreck. Perkins-Valdez portrayal of psychological control and manipulation was illuminating and heartbreaking. What becomes abundantly clear early is that Lizzie has an emotional bond with her master/lover that can be very hard to understand in this light. I don't mean this as a reflection on the craft of characterization but as a reflection on who Lizzie is and how her unique situation resulted in her conflicting loyalties.

As I said, I was pretty emotionally wrapped up in this book from the get-go but, along with the writing, I did notice another detail of craft that I quite liked. As the book opens you meet the women at the resort. Later in the book you learn Lizzie's back story and what her life is like back in Tennessee. I liked this a lot as I was already beginning to form an opinion of Lizzie but the shift in locale and events added layers to her decision-making and actions that forced me to rethink my response to her.

Wench is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. As a writer, Dolen Perkins-Valdez should not be missed but, more importantly, this is a story that shouldn't be missed. These are women that shouldn't be missed.

rating: 5 of 5 stars

For anyone that has read the book... did you happen to notice the ending of the jacket blurb? "...the moral complexities of slavery." Any thoughts on what that means? My first response was, "There are moral complexities to slavery?" I would think the obvious answer is no - wrong is wrong, nothing complex about that - but after reading the book I thought that maybe that statement was to be seen as coming from the perspective of the slaves. As in, the moral complexities of leaving your family behind in a bid for freedom in the pre-Civil War days. Any thoughts?

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