Wench (Perkins-Valdez)

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, 2010
293 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061706547

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 arebearing 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
• Birth—N/A
• Where—Memphis, Tennessee, USA
• Education—B.A., Harvard University
• Currently—lives in Washington, DC, and Seattle Washington

Dolen Perkins-Valdez's fiction and essays have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories 2009, The Kenyon Review, PMS: PoemMemoirStory, North Carolina Literary Review, and "Richard Wright Newsletter."

Born and raised in Memphis, a graduate of Harvard, and a former University of California postdoctoral fellow, Perkins-Valdez teaches creative writing at the University of Puget Sound. She splits her time between Washington, DC and Seattle, Washington. This is her first novel. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews 
In her debut, Perkins-Valdez eloquently plunges into a dark period of American history, chronicling the lives of four slave women—Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu—who are their masters’ mistresses. The women meet when their owners vacation at the same summer resort in Ohio. There, they see free blacks for the first time and hear rumors of abolition, sparking their own desires to be free. For everyone but Lizzie, that is, who believes she is really in love with her master, and he with her. An extended flashback in the middle of the novel delves into Lizzie’s life and vividly explores the complicated psychological dynamic between master and slave. Jumping back to the final summer in Ohio, the women all have a decision to make—will they run? Heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez’s ability to bring the unfortunate past to life.
Publishers Weekly

In this memorable first novel by Memphis-born Perkins-Valdez (English, Mary Washington Coll.), four friends meet each summer at a resort in Ohio but can share only snatches of time. Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu are black slaves brought to the resort each year by their vacationing Southern masters as personal servants and sexual companions. Their presence discomfits the Northern whites and black servants in the free state of Ohio, but the real angst lies within each woman's struggles: Mawu is determined to escape her sadistic master; Lizzie admires Mawu's independent spirit but concentrates her efforts on wheedling her master into granting freedom to her own children. VERDICT Readers of historical fiction centering on Southern women's stories like Lalita Tademy's Cane River or Lee Smith's On Agate Hill will be moved by the skillful portrayal of Lizzie's precarious situation and the tragic stories of her fellow slaves. —Laurie A. Cavanaugh, Brockton P.L., MA
Library Journal

A striking debut intimately limns a Southern slave's complicated relationship with her master. Perkins-Valdez (English/Univ. of Puget Sound) builds a convincing, nuanced portrait of Lizzie, a slave on Nathan Drayle's Tennessee plantation. Nathan took Lizzie as his mistress (if such a word can be used for the enslaved) as an adolescent; by the age of 16 she had borne him a son and daughter. He shows unguarded favor to Lizzie, moving her into the guestroom across from his wife's bedroom, teaching her to read and speak like a lady, seeming to need and care for her. In addition, her two light-skinned children are his only offspring. In the summer of 1852 Nathan takes his favored slave Philip and Lizzie to Tawawa House, an Ohio resort where Southern men bring their slave women. Ohio is a revelation to Lizzie. Free black men and women are employed at the hotel, and Lizzie sees a nearby resort catering to well-to-do African-Americans. For Lizzie and the other slaves she befriends that summer, this seems like the world turned upside down. The Southern men spend much of their time hunting, leaving Lizzie the opportunity to imagine a life away from slavery with Sweet (pregnant and doomed), Reenie (defeated by her master, who is also her white half-brother) and Mawu (redheaded, fierce and possessing voodoo charms). They meet Glory, an abolitionist Quaker who is the first white woman to speak to Lizzie as an equal. Mawu, Reenie and Philip talk of escaping, but Lizzie, fearing the slave catchers might hurt them, tells Nathan of their plan. The next summer, barely forgiven by the others for her betrayal, Lizzie begins to wonder why she loves Nathan, her protector and tormentor since childhood. This wondering is her first step toward freedom, and the potential of what the next summer may bring. Compelling and unsentimental.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Lizzie is a house slave. How does this position differ from working in the fields? How does this status affect her day-to-day existence? What impact does it have for her children?

2. Unlike many slaves, Lizzie learned to read. Why did Drayle teach her? What does this ability offer her? Does her ability influence the other slaves she lived with?

3. When Mawu asks Lizzie about Drayle, Lizzie hears the question, "Is he good to you?" Later she comes to understand that Mawu wanted to know, "Is he God to you?" How would you answer both questions? How do these questions relate to one another in the context of Lizzie's life?

4. Lizzie claims that she loves Drayle. Does she? Does he love her? How would you describe their bond? Can love truly exist when there is such an imbalance of power between two people? What about Drayle and his wife, Fran? Talk about their marriage and compare it to the relationship between Lizzie and Drayle.

5. How would you describe Drayle? What kind of a slave owner is he? What does Lizzie mean to Drayle? How does he treat her? How does he treat their children? Lizzie begs Drayle to free their son and daughter. Why won't he?

6. Describe the relationship between Drayle's wife, Fran, and Lizzie. How do the women view each other? How are their positions similar?

7. When Drayle receives an offer to sell Phillip he refuses. Why? What eventually makes him change his mind? What does Lizzie think about Phillip's chance at freedom? Why does she refuse to help him when she is first asked—and what changes her mind?

8. Compare and contrast the four women at the heart of the novel: Lizzie, Mawu, Sweet, and Reenie. Though they are all slaves, are their experiences the same? What accounts for any differences?

9. How did Lizzie feel about going to Tawawa? What did the resort offer her that her life in Tennessee did not? How do her experiences at the resort change her over the course of the summers she is there?

10. What was Lizzie's opinion of Mawu when she first met her? Describe the arc of their relationship. What events changed they way they saw each other?

11. Describe the women's white masters. What are their relationships like with their slaves? Do these relationships offer any benefits to the women? Are these women entirely powerless? If not, what power do they have?

12. Why does Lizzie tell Drayle about Mawu's plan to escape? Is she surprised by Mawu's punishment? Why doesn't Mawu hate Lizzie for what she did? When Mawu finally escapes, she stays behind, waiting for Lizzie? Why does she risk herself for Lizzie? What do they all see in Lizzie—why is she special?

13. Tawawa was very near to where free colored folk also vacationed, a place called Lewis House. What do the slaves think of Lewis House? Why didn't more slaves try to escape when freedom was so near? Why do you think the Northern whites who also summered at Tawawa didn't help them find freedom?

14. What role does the white woman, Glory, play in the novel? When they first meet her, they are startled by her behavior. "These slaves had been around Northern whites long enough to recognize one who didn't understand the rules." Why doesn't Glory seem to "understand the rules?" How does meeting her influence the slaves, especially Lizzie?

15. Many events happen during Lizzie's visits to Ohio, from the discovery of the abolitionist pamphlet to the trip to Dayton to meeting Glory and Phillip's fiancé. Talk about the significance of each and explain how they shaped Lizzie's outlook about her life and herself. How does she change by the novel's end? What about the other characters?

16. What does freedom mean to you? What does it mean to Lizzie and the other slaves?

17. Lizzie lived a life defined by indignity and degradation. How did she cope and overcome her pain?

18. After Sweet learns that all of her children have died from cholera, she tells her friends that she wants to die. Is death better than a life in chains?

19. Discuss the evils of slavery. How does it degrade the soul of both the enslaved and their masters?

20. Unlike the characters in the story, you, the reader, know that the Civil War will occur in less than a decade. How does the knowledge shape your experience reading the story? Does it give you hope for Lizzie and her children?

21. What did you learn from reading Wench? What affected you most about the story?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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