Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Wench.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's debut novel, Wench, is outstanding: well crafted, imaginative, spellbinding, and above all satisfying. It is the story of two slave women--one from Tennessee and the other from Louisiana--who are related well beyond the confines of enslavement. Mawu and Lizzie meet when their masters take them as concubines to a summer resort in Ohio. Mawu is defiant and carefree. Lizzie loves her master and is reserved. Within the span of four such summer excursions, they learn that love can sustain them in the face of excruciating cruelty, depravity, and disappointment.
Divided into four parts, the story begins in 1852 at the Tawawa Resort south of Cincinnati, where wealthy northerners and southerners go "to take the water." Tawawa is a Shawnee Indian word for clear water. The resort features a three-story, columned main hotel and cabins. The cabins are used by southerners who bring their slave women with them under the pretense of needing domestic assistance. Mawu's master is a widower who "visited the women in the slave quarters even before his wife was dead." Lizzie's master never takes his wife with him.
The language of the novel is poetic. Mawu chooses a spot for cooking her stew because "that big old tree blocked the wind like a giant woman." The so-called trusted group of slaves desiring to see the nearby free colored resort are warned if they are a few minutes late for evening chores, the pregnant slave Sweet would be beaten. According to the narrator, "It was a cruel bargain--one harsh enough to make them sit around the camp for three hours that morning wondering if they should venture off anywhere at all. It was a promise layered on top of other unspoken threats, hinting at violence to their children, parents, siblings back at the plantations should they overestimate the men's pity for a pregnant woman."
The work also features enduring portraits of the trials of motherhood under the peculiar institution. The looming question is: Should they run since they are on free land? The resounding answer harkens back to the children. Only Mawu admonishes: "Who don't got childrens? But what I'm gonde do for my child as a slave woman? I need to run off so as I can try to get my boy out. As long as I is a slave, ain't nothing gone change."
The introduction of the character Glory recalls Shirley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose. Glory is a Quaker woman, the wife of a local farmer who supplies dairy products to the resort. According to the narrator, "There was something about the way in which she shared the air with them [the slaves]. As if it belonged to all of them and was not hers alone." She befriends Lizzie then serves as something of a mediator between Lizzie and Mawu. The dynamics between the three women are extraordinary.
Wench echoes, revises, and/or enlarges upon resistance and neoresistance narratives by Mary Seacole, Linda Brent, Shirley Anne Williams, Beryl Gilroy, Toni Morrison, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Alice Walker, among others. All the characters are sensitively drawn with various nuances, and there are many layers to this novel.
Adele S. Newson-Horst
Missouri State University