Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

My mom called me all excited about this book. She stumbled across it on the internet and was intrigued by the story, a piece of US history that I’m sure most have never heard. She’d been reading for an hour before she called me and an hour later I was out hunting for it at the local bookstore. (I had to go to two before I found it-always call around first!)

Wench is a fictional account of the happenings at a resort in Ohio. But first, a bit about this resort. According to the author’s note Tawawa Resort opened in 1852 near Xenia, Ohio. She says that Southern slave holders visited the resort and brought along slaves as accompaniment. According to local history many of these slaves were mistresses, hence the name wench, and were a reason for the resort’s decline. Other visitors, including Northern abolitionists were not keen on these openly displayed relationships. Tawawa closed its doors in 1855. The Cincinnati Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church bought the land in 1856 and established the Ohio African University. After the beginning of the Civil War the school closed. The African Methodist Episcopal Church bought the property in 1863 and the school was renamed Wilberforce University. The Historical Marker Database has a bit more information about this site. Mom says she read that Perkins-Valdez imagined what it would be like to be an enslaved woman traveling to this resort.

The story centers around four women-slaves who accompany their masters to Tawawa House each summer for a vacation. They are also their master’s lovers and in some cases the mothers of their children. They have become close friends and each looks forward to this vacation and sprucing up the small cottages, and getting away from drab and dangerous plantation life. The men camp, hunt, fish, dine and smoke cigars while the women meet to share stories, recipes, and serve as a comfort to each other. These are women that can understand and appreciate each other’s circumstance. Initially we get to know each woman and a bit about her life.

Reenie comes to the resort with ‘Sir’ who is her master, brother, and lover. Sweet has multiple children at home and must continue to work in spite of her pregnancy. Glory, a Quaker with anti-slavery sentiments, lives with her husband near Tawawa House. Their farm supplies food to the resort. Described as a “Northern white… who didn’t understand the rules”, she sympathizes with the women and is willing to risk her life if she can help.

Mawu who, in an act of defiance, changed her name from Betsy accompanies Mr. Taylor (‘Tip’) up from Louisiana. She does not like him but he insists on being her lover. She has born him four children three of which he sold, the other suffered brain damage after a fall. Mawu is the newest to the group of women. She comes to Tawawa red hair ablaze; she refuses to have more children and is alive with thoughts of escape and of spells and herbs.

Lizzie (Eliza) belongs to Nathaniel Drayle of Tennessee both emotionally and physically. She has born him two children Nate Jr. his spitting image and Rabbit (May) who looks like a ‘white doll’. His wife Fran is not able to have children and overlooks the fact that her husband is sleeping with Lizzie. Lizzie has lived and worked in the house since she was a young girl. Drayle taught her how to read and favored her over the other slaves. As a young girl she learned early that she could receive things from him if she gave pieces of herself. She struggles with her love and affection for Drayle against the backdrop of realizing that she has no real choice, she is not free and neither are her children. She constantly struggles with the desire to escape but is held back by the fact that to escape would mean risking her children’s lives. Isn’t Drayle good to her? He tells her he loves her and does things for her and her children, her life can’t be so bad enough as to run away. She contemplates Mawu’s question: “Is he God to you?” But Drayle, like the other slave holders, is unpredictable. The life of a slave is unpredictable. As the story progresses, we learn more about Lizzie’s life and the story focuses on her point of view for the duration.

Time passes slowly until the women can make it back to their cottages at the resort. We are able to see what the resort means to each woman. The moral predicament is a delicate and complex one: that of slave and mistress, of love and contempt. At times the women wield amazing power and at others they are painfully reminded of their place in the world.

The servants did not hide their curiosity as the slave women walked through the kitchen. Each woman had experienced a range of reactions from the slaves back home: jealousy, pride, pity. Here in Ohio, they had not spoken much about what the free colored people thought of women like them. This was partly because they did not care. They had each other, unlike down south. There it was a lonely battle.

Wench is Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ debut novel and overall, not bad at all. This is a story I’ve read many times, though it never felt recycled. The inclusion of this piece of history made for an interesting story. The women were all very real to me especially Lizzie. It was obvious that by the end of the novel she’d been changed by her friends, her summers at Tawawa House, and new discoveries. The only thing that I would have wanted a bit more of was description. Sometimes I couldn’t quite imagine the surroundings; the clinking of china at the table, the dust flying in the slave quarters, the flouncing dresses of women in town. But then again, some people feel bogged down by that sort of thing. In historical novels for me it is sometimes the best part.

Off to drop this one in the mail, Ma is eagerly awaiting.

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2 responses to “Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

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