Author: Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Genre: Fiction; Historical
Publisher: Amistad (Harper Collins)
Release Date: January 5, 2010
This fictional novel is based on a real place in history, Tawawa House. Tawawa House was located in Ohio and was where, prior to the civil war, white men (typically Southerners) would vacation during the summer with their "favorite" slave (or "wench"). It was one of those things everyone knew but didn't talk about -- men "taking up" with their female slaves, fathering children, yet still enslaving these women. Ohio was also a free state meaning they were surrounded, while there on vacation, by other black people who were living freely.
The book takes place mainly over a few summers. The main character, Lizzie, is treated fairly well by her owner, Drayle, though not as much so by his wife, Fran. Though Fran was unable to bear her husband any children, Lizzie did -- a boy and a girl. She and the children are given some preferential treatment. Drayle has Lizzie accompany him on these summer trips, and Lizzie believes she and Drayle have a true relationship of mutual love. Of course, Lizzie is conflicted in her belief as she still has to try and coax Drayle into freeing her (their) children -- not to mention she is still enslaved.
During the summer at Tawawa House, Lizzie befriends other slave women: Reenie, an older woman, Sweet, who is pregnant at the outset of the novel, and Mawu, a rebellious woman with a bright red shock of hair. It comes to their attention during this summer of 1853 that just along the way is a resort for "free blacks". As they spend time in this area, so much more progressive than where they come from, they are tempted by the thought of running away and becoming free themselves.
The author did a great job in Wench of bringing to light for the reader the complicated dynamics between the "master" and the "enslaved mistresses". Each of these women was tempted to run for freedom, yet they had other realities to take into consideration: for instance, if they were caught they would be severely punished and their quality of life afterward would likely be immensely worse. They also had to consider their children -- not only the thought of leaving their children behind but the potential punishments that would be taken out on the children instead. And possibly the most complex, and an interesting psychological issue, was the relationship between the enslaved mistress and the master in which there may or may not have been actual love. In Wench, some of the women have no question about their disdain for their masters; but Lizzie believes she truly does love her master, and he her.
Wench also did a great job of depicting the typical daily life of a slave and how barbarous and unjust the practice was. Not that I didn't already know that but it was a raw reminder. It had my blood boiling at times, reading about the way these human beings were treated. And what an interesting dynamic between the master and his enslaved children. These men would impregnate their slaves and despite the children being their own flesh and blood, they still treated them as nothing more than objects of their ownership.
Wench was a quick and engaging read that provided a glimpse into the lives of the slaves at Tawawa House and the complex dynamics between the slaves and their owners at a time when they first started realizing that freedom was a genuine possibility. A recommended read!
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