Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Wench tells of four women slaves who travel with their masters each summer to Tawawa House, a resort in Ohio, a free state. For the women, it is a working vacation, where they have enough leisure to swim in the hot springs and take occasional short trips. Yet even as they are dressed prettily for a special dinner-dance with their masters, they cannot forget that they are slaves, each compelled to share her master’s bed and bear his children.
The story, which takes place in the 1840s and 1850s, is told in third person, mainly through the eyes of Lizzie, a house slave from Tennessee who has a genuine emotional attachment to her master because he has been relatively kind to her. When the slaves hear about a similar resort nearby for free colored people, they are amazed and determined to see it. When one of them decides to escape, the others are reluctant. They do not want to risk punishment if they are recaptured. And if they manage to escape, they might never again see their children, at home on the plantation.
The novel explores Lizzie’s inner life to help us understand why she makes her decisions. Three of the four parts take place in Tawawa House, the resort near Dayton, Ohio, and Part II reaches back into Lizzie’s past to explore how she became her master’s sexual partner, sleeping in a bedroom across the hall from his wife. The title, Wench, plays with the meaning of that word, which can refer to a young woman; a black woman servant; or a mistress.
I was glad that the author tried to make sense of Lizzie’s situation and perspective, instead of slapping modern ideas onto her. Lizzie and her friends at Tawawa House are each unique and complex. There is plenty of fodder for book club discussions in this interesting book, which opens a view onto a little-known aspect of American history.
The photo above is from the author’s web site: https://www.dolenperkinsvaldez.com/