Wench: Strong in the Middle

All I can say is that I believe this is a story that needed to be told.  The history of black women and sexual servitude is a devastating one.  Yet I tried to tell it within a complex framework, to show that women during that time often had to make very difficult choices. – Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Wench

My 1-Sentence Summary: Slave women and their affairs with their white masters.

Their Summary: 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? (Publishers Weekly)

Overall Thoughts on the Book: Just when I wanted to stop reading, I made it to Part II (the middle) and the book turned around for the better. That portion of Wench really showcased Perkins-Valdez’ writing talent. Unfortunately, in Parts I and III, I think the author becomes lost in the premise of setting the novel on an “American resort before the Civil War” and overwhelmed herself with too many underdeveloped characters. Had the overall focus of the novel been on the relationship between Lizzie and Drayle, I’d have more positive things to say about this book. Not a wasted read, but a reluctant recommendation. Grade: B-

Excerpt: For the next week or so, he brought her cold water in the middle of the night, and each time, she took it more and more wilingly until she was waiting expectantly, her body tense with restlessness and thirst while she anticipated his low rumbling voice. He changed glasses twice, until finally he brought a large jar she couldn’t finish off at once. Now he sat down to wait. And with each visit, he moved closer and closer to her on the pallet, until finally he was lying beside her, his smooth skin slick against hers as he touched the cold glass to her face.

Author’s Reason for Writing: I was reading a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and, during a section about his tenure at Wilberforce University, came across a stunning line about the existence of a summer resort in Ohio that was popular among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I could not get this idea out of my head. I had so many questions. I began to delve into the archives, and found very little. These women left no record behind. Neither did the men, as far as I could tell. I know that you have read Annette Gordon-Reed’s brilliant historical book The Hemingses of Monticello, and one factor that allows her to write so vividly about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings was the fact that Jefferson was a meticulous record-keeper and also that he was such a prominent national figure. Well, there were many instances of relationships between slaveholders and their enslaved women that escaped the public eye. In fact, I would venture so far as to say that this was not an unusual arrangement, except there are no records because not every slaveholder was a meticulous record-keeper and not every slaveholder was famous. I wanted to write this book to answer my own questions of what it would have been like for these women.

Happy reading, y’all!

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