When Wench was first published in 2010 by Amistad Books, the work garnered praise from USA Today, People, and Essence. Available earlier this year in paperback, the provocative title leads the reader into the Ohio woods to a place that actually existed,Tawawa House. Author Dolen Perkins-Valdez found the kernel for her first novel while reading a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois about his tenure at Wilberforce University of Ohio. That biography made reference to a summer resort near Xenia that was popular among slave holders who vacationed with their enslaved mistresses.
From a sketched broadside of the actual resort, called Tawawa, a Shawnee word for clear water, newspaper advertisements from the time, and her own extensive reading of nineteenth century slave narratives, Perkins-Valdez was able to piece together what these summer forays into the free state of Ohio must have been like for a group of slaves during the years leading up to the Civil War.
The structure of the novel consists of four parts which are mainly chronological except for one flashback departure(Part II) that serves to explain how Lizzie, the main character, becomes a mistress to her owner, Nathaniel Drayle. Part I takes place during 1852, the second summer this particular group of slaves, from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Georgia travels to Tawawa with their masters. The proximity of their cabins, the more casual vacation attitude of the resort and their cooperation to serve the small group of slave owners brings them together in a way not permitted at their southern plantations. The resort also includes a hotel where freemen and women are employed. The slaves are fascinated that the hotel employees can come and go as they please. And even more intrigued when they learn that a resort exists nearby for free blacks.
This unfamiliar notion of freedom becomes more pronounced when the "regulars" at the resort, Lizzie, Reenie and Sweet meet a new arrival to Tawawa, named Mawu. Independent and strong-willed, Mawu voices the group's unexpressed hope for escape. Then, as the women actually meet the inhabitants of the resort for free blacks and a Quaker abolitionist named Glory, their thoughts of freedom pervade the atmosphere for the rest of Part I.
I found the flashback in Part II, which goes back to the period from 1842-1849 and focuses on the character, Lizzie, to be jarring at first. Part I set up the major conflict for this interesting group of characters so well that I wanted to know which ones would seek the freedom right under their noses. However, since Part II takes a close-up look of how a young slave girl becomes a mistress to her owner and what this does to the fabric of his family and her resulting children, I am grateful that Perkins-Valdez structured the narrative as she did.
In Parts III and IV, the friendships among Lizzie, Mawu, Reenie, and Sweet deepen as they support each other through tragic events and discover the love of family denied them by the institution of slavery. The decision to grab freedom while they are so near it becomes complicated by many unforeseen circumstances. The novel explores the themes of power and freedom, love and dependence, all while turning an unflinching eye toward the moral complexities embodied in slavery.
When asked why she chose the title, Wench, Perkins-Valdez cites that wanted posters often listed runaway female slaves as "wenches," reinforcing a stereotype prevalent during those times that regarded black women as hypersexualized. While the word "wench" originally meant "young girl" in Middle English, it evolved to mean "wanton woman." When the word entered American English, it was applied specifically to black women. The author notes (in the interview following the text of the novel) that given the sexual servitude of her characters, the title really seemed to fit.
Wench will appeal to readers who love historic fiction, but also to those who just love a good read, strong characters, and tough questions. You can find a link to Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez at WVXU.org.