BY DOLEN PERKINS-VALDEZ
An ambitious and startling debut novel that follows the lives of four women at a resort popular among slaveholders who bring their enslaved mistresses
wench \'wench\ n. from Middle English "wenchel," 1 a: a girl, maid, young woman; a female child.
Tawawa House in many respects is like any other American resort before the Civil War. Situated in Ohio, this idyllic retreat is particularly nice in the summer when the Southern humidity is too much to bear. The main building, with its luxurious finishes, is loftier than the white cottages that flank it, but then again, the smaller structures are better positioned to catch any breeze that may come off the pond. And they provide more privacy, which best suits the needs of the Southern white men who vacation there every summer with their black, enslaved mistresses. It's their open secret.
Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet are regulars at Tawawa House. They have become friends over the years as they reunite and share developments in their own lives and on their respective plantations. They don't bother too much with questions of freedom, though the resort is situated in free territory–but when truth-telling Mawu comes to the resort and starts talking of running away, things change.
To run is to leave behind everything these women value most–friends and families still down South–and for some it also means escaping from the emotional and psychological bonds that bind them to their masters. When a fire on the resort sets off a string of tragedies, the women of Tawawa House soon learn that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the most inhuman, brutal of circumstances–all while they are bearing witness to the end of an era.
An engaging, page-turning, and wholly original novel, Wench explores, with an unflinching eye, the moral complexities of slavery.ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's fiction and essays have appeared in Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories 2009, The Kenyon Review, PMS: PoemMemoirStory, North Carolina Literary Review, and the Richard Wright Newsletter. She is a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard. Dolen lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.
This is the kind of story you can curl up with and not want to put down until it is finished...and that is what I did! Dolen Perkins-Valdez takes her research about a resort prior to the Civil War that eventually became the first black college known as Wilberforce University, and sets her suspenseful, heart breaking, women's relationship story in this setting. During a dark period of our country's history, Tawawa House, in Ohio, was a resort where three female slaves who were their owners' mistresses would visit every summer. Here they could live together, slave master and mistress, and while it was still kept as a secret. the resort was really well known.
WENCH tells of Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet, who each year would visit Tawawa with their slave masters and they formed a lasting friendship that was something that kept them going until they met again the next year. They were happy at Tawawa, or at least as happy as they could imagine, until a fourth slave mistress, Mawu, comes along. She gives them the idea that there is a possibility of escape and freedom while they are at the resort...something they never dared to think of before. While the book deals with each character in depth and the lives they live away from as well as at the resort, it is the tragedy that takes place one day at Tawawa that makes things never quite the same from then on.
I found the relationships of the women with each other as well as with their slave owners so well written and intriguing that I want to picture this as a movie to watch over and over again. However, I am not sure the Perkins-Valdez's beautifully written novel could be made into a movie and still have the same impact that the book does. This is a winner and I hope to read more by this author in the future. I think it would make a fabulous choice for book clubs as it invites good discussion and analyzing.
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