Saturday, January 14, 2012

Wench: A Novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Rating: 3.5 Stars
Pages: 290 (Hardcover)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series/Standalone: Standalone
Publication Year: 2010
Source: Miami-Dade Public Library

Synopsis (Goodreads):

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.


I probably should have written this review before I discussed it with my book club.  Now I am having a hard time figuring out where to start.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez debut novel Wench takes a different route then most narratives surrounding slavery.  While it is like the traditional slave tale, Wench does deal with the harden facts of slavery, beatings, escape, oppression, fear, uncertain.  But Perkins-Valdez takes Wench a step further and dives into the relationship and experience of slave women (wenches) and their masters.

The main character, Lizzie, this is primarily her story and how her interactions with the three women change her own views on her enslavement and the relationship she has with her master, Drayle.  When the story first started I did not like Lizzie, her actions infuriated me and made her unlikable.  I was ready to write her off and I even state the book down for week, not sure if I could continue.  But her character did learn for the actions and I had hope for her.  She seemed to gain strength and grow.  I was rooting for her.  Then she disappointed me once again.

I think my main problem with Lizzie was that she was to malleable.  She seemed so ready to believe anything and everything that Drayle had to tell her.  No matter what the circumstance.  Her character seemed to want to believe the best in him.  Lizzie continued to accept all his offers of appeasement even when they  directly conflicted her desire for freedom for herself and her children.

 The other characters were minor.  They were more consistent and as a reader I knew what to expect from them.

Wench was original in the fact that Perkins-Valdez set most of the at Tawawan House.  Which is a hotel where Southern men would take their slave women for the summer without their wives.  I liked this, it offered a different view into historical events.  Something that I had never considered before: masters taking their favorite female slaves on vacation with them.

One of the most problematic issues I had with this novel was that I got the feeling that was stuff left out.  Like the author was constrained to a limit amount of space and had to get her story out in that space.  There were several scenes that I had to read a couple of times to understand what was going on.  The details weren't there and it made it hard to follow.  This would have been a better novel if the details would have been flushed out more.

Pros:  characters, story line, historical point of view
Cons:  lack of details, confusing scenes

Overall Recommendation:

One of the questions asked at my book club meeting was if I would read another book by Dolen Perkins-Valdez.  I answered yes with a reservations.  For a first novel it was overall good but I had a feeling that the author was holding back on some of the deals that I felt would have made this a more consistent read.  With more space and less restraint I think Wench would have been a better novel.

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