This provocative novel narrates a gripping story of white masters and their slave mistresses during the early 1800s prior to the Civil War. The four main characters are from separate southern plantations, but Lizzy, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu vacation with their white masters in a free-state resort in Xenia, Ohio each summer. Over the course of several summers, the group forms a complex sisterly bond, based on both mutual need and mutual distrust. While we do read of events on the plantation on which Lizzie, Phillip and Drayle, their master, live; the novel mostly focuses on their collective Ohio experiences. There the women struggle to balance their longing for freedom with both the subtle and blatant ways slavery debases them. Though the work is entirely fiction, the resort’s site is historically accurate. According to the historical research I found, rumors of white masters with slave concubines gradually caused the resort’s decline and closing. In 1856, the resort was purchased by the Methodist Episcopal Church to become a school for free blacks. Later, it became the site for Wilberforce University, which continues to this day serving as an institution of higher learning.
That the site eventually becomes a school serves as an ironic counterpoint to one of the plot’s main topics—can Lizzy convince her master to educate and free their son. The novel’s main focus is Lizzy, Drayle and his childless wife, Fran. The author describes Lizzy’s “seduction” and builds with how she and others on the plantation all confront the many conflicts which ensue. But the novel mostly details how each of the women in Wench suffer emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their “owners.” Each finds herself gradually and systematically worn down, able to escape only in dreams of freedom—her own and her children’s. Although each woman has a unique relationship with her respective master, Lizzy, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu constantly carry the common bond of slavery and mistreatment. In spite of the seeming benefits over all the other slaves at their home plantations, each still finds herself trapped—sometimes in snares of her own making. The novel vividly depicts the heart-wrenching decisions, emotional turmoil and tragic pain each woman must endure as she struggles to save herself physically, spiritually and emotionally. Not only must each bear terrible ordeals, she must also walk a fine line because harsh consequences always follow if she fails to please her master. The women exist in perpetual turmoil. The fact that they summer in a free state puts freedom within each woman’s grasp. The central question becomes should she seize it or submit?
Perkins-Valdez uses such riveting and poetic language in telling her story, that, in spite of shocking and difficult passages, the reader learns to find sympathy where it is least expected. Unlike any other novel I’ve read about this period, never before have I found myself drawn into the minds of the characters caught in this life. Indeed, many times I wanted to look away. Parts of the novel were too raw and real. Yet Perkins-Valdez kept me engaged because she presents real people ensnared in unspeakable tragedy. Because the characters are so believable, we care about what happens and read on.
The novel explores several complex relationships. For me, the most complex was the relationship that gradually develops between Lizzy and her master’s wife, Fran. Not only is it unexpected, but it is key to understanding the novel’s climax. As the plot progresses, Lizzie’s indecisiveness becomes central to understanding the novel. The author lets us suffer along with Lizzy’s ambivalence about what action to take because it is fundamental to her character’s predicament. Just as she had to face what to do early in the novel, when confronted with knowledge of a planned run away, Lizzy’s trap is always her never changing reality. Is her chief duty to herself or to her children? We understand and sympathize with this inner battle because the author succeeds in making her character authentic.
The very reality of the characters makes the novel hard to put down. Rarely does a novel capture one’s attention the way Wench does. After starting, I found any excuse possible to find time to read. I felt conflicted about it, too, because the novel covers such an ugly chapter in our history. Yet the author takes such care in telling the stories of these four slave women that you find yourself longing to know what becomes of Lizzie, Sugar, Reenie and Mawu. The novel’s strongest element for me was that while the white master’s actions were unspeakably cruel, the women always handled themselves with a grace and dignity beyond imagining. At the end one is both shocked and relieved, but also longing still to know the rest of these absorbing stories. In a postscript at the novel’s conclusion, the author says she doesn’t plan a sequel. Instead, she invites readers to imagine the war gradually coming and with it a fuller promise of freedom for both the women and their children. I see her point, but found these stories too compelling to end here. If you read Wench, I think you will agree.
Check out the WRL catalog for Wench.
Or try it on CD audiobook.