History is a funny thing. From a narrow view, we get only a single version of the truth, somewhat like a house with just one window. But when Dolen Perkins-Valdez gave us Wench, she created an historical architecture as big as a resort hotel, thrown all the windows open to astonishing ideas.
Wench is the story of four women born to slavery in the pre-Civil War South, women who by virtues of intelligence, cunning, and beauty carve something beautiful for themselves in a life that is a virtual prison. Lizzie Drayle is a house-slave on a plantation in Tennessee. She lives a life of relative comfort compared to the field slaves, but that luxury comes at a price. When she was just 13, Master Drayle came to her in the night, and made her his lover.
In 1853, reward posters for runaway slave women referred to them as wenches, a half-truth. But in this novel, the term means more than wanton, it refers to slave women who are not merely the commercial property of landowners, but women who are sisters and daughters, lovers and mothers of children. There may be stirrings of abolition and an underground railroad to help slaves escape to freedom, but it is a faint cry, and one of impossible odds.
One year, Master Drayle takes Lizzie to Ohio, to a resort called Tawawa House, a retreat for Southern white men who want to vacation with their enslaved black mistresses. This year, while their owners enjoy the amenities of the resort, the slaves mingle, share stories and histories, tell what they know of where they came from, the families they knew, and the families they create from circumstance. There is Lizzie, accompanying the man she believes she loves and with whom she has two children. Fearless Mawu is a light-skinned, red-haired woman with a mind of her own and a cruel owner who beats her viciously. Sweet is true to her name and a mother of five by her master. Reenie is older than the rest and is captive to her brother-master and mother of a daughter-niece.
Over the course of three summers, the women gather, support one another and watch and wait patiently for the moment when freedom might open like a sly, narrow door. The question is whether they will take the offer of freedom. It seems a simple choice to make, except that the laws are rigid, the consequences brutal, and even a choice for freedom requires tragic sacrifices.
Wench is really about Lizzie. Drayle is kind to her, mostly, though there are conventions that even he won’t challenge. He seems to care for Lizzie, but he also considers her to be his property, just as he does their two children. In the end, Lizzie surrenders her own freedom by negotiating her children’s. When given the opportunity to flee one summer in Ohio, she accepts instead, a life of humiliating bondage, a bargain for the lives of her children.
Wench is a deeply moving story of dignity and survival. It is a story of our shared history, part of who we are.
Review by Cynthia Gregoryfirstname.lastname@example.org