Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Wench -- A Heartbreaking Work of Historical Genius
I picked up the novel Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez at my neighborhood Borders' going-out-of-business sale. In honor of the discounted prices, I was actually allowing myself to peruse the new hardcovers, and Wench caught my eye because of its alluring cover. As you faithful Meltingpot readers know, I'm always on the lookout for books with people of color on the cover. Well, with Wench, you can barely tell that the woman in the fancy lace dress and hat is actually Black, but somehow I knew.
As soon as I picked up the book, I realized that I'd heard buzz around the blogosphere about this title. I couldn't remember exactly what I'd heard, but after reading the flap copy on the book, I knew I had to buy it. Wench is a story I've never heard told before. It is based on a true part of our American history that I am so glad Perkins-Valdez had the guts to explore in her debut novel.
Centered around Tawana House, a summer resort in pre-Civil War Ohio, Wench tells the story of four slave women who are brought to the resort by their White owners as their concubines. In what seems like a shocking act of disrespect to their wives, these wealthy White men leave their spouses back home on the plantation preferring to bring their Black mistresses on vacation with them instead. But make no mistake, Wench isn't about the secret loves between White men and Black women in antebellum America. The four women, Lizzie, Mawu, Reenie, and Sweet, are still slaves, made to clean, cook, and fuck their masters at all times of the day and night, and yet they have been elevated in status in some ways by being brought along on vacation. Yes, it's complicated.
The big irony of this whole distasteful situation is that Tawana House is in free country. Black people are free in Ohio, and in fact, free Blacks work at Tawana House and often turn their noses up at these "scarlet women" from the south. The story really begins as one of the four slave women, Mawu, decides that they should all try to make a run for freedom.
Perkins-Valdzez does a remarkable job exploring the mindset of these four different women. Each one has their own way of dealing with her circumstances. Each one has her own way of surviving this life. I cried throughout most of the book, knowing that although this is a work of fiction, the story is far from invented.( In fact, in an author's note there is a description of the real Tawana house. And on the author's website you can see actual drawings of the original structure.) Fictionalizing the story though, giving us characters to care about and a setting to place them in, brings the realitites of slavery that much closer and more painful.
That being said, Wench has moments of hope and inspiration. It is not an angry book nor one that demonizes all White people. Quite simply, it offers an intimate portrait of slavery, when we're so used to broad brushstrokes of horror. The stories that transpire in Wench make our history feel human. They are the stories of all of our ancestors, White and Black. What's more, Perkins-Valdez is an excellent storyteller. She created fascinating characters, kept the story going at a page-turning pace, and managed to pen period-appropriate dialogue without interrupting the flow of the story. That requires real talent.
I am so pleased that this book exists. I am hopeful that it inspires conversations across color lines about race, sex, and our nation's history. I can tell this will be a good book club read! More importantly, I hope the success of this book makes the publishing industry take note that people want to read books about Black people, because our stories are intricately connected to your stories.
As if you couldn't tell, I highly recommend Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Just make sure to have your tissues by your side.