Monday, February 14, 2011

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez — 320 pgs

Book CoverLizzie, Reenie, Mawu and Sweet are female slaves who have been brought to the Tawawa House resort with their masters for the summer. Leaving their wives behind, these men journey to the resort with their slaves, hoping to create for themselves a world in which each of them can be free to mix with the slave women, who are also their mistresses, in polite society. Each slave woman has a different relationship with her owner, from Lizzie who believes that her master Drayle loves her, to Mawu whose master Tip thinks nothing of publicly abusing and threatening her. As three summers pass, the women weave their way into each other's lives, becoming more than just friends. As the story winds its way through the three summers the women spend with each other, Perkins-Valdez shows her readers the pain, misdirection, and brutality visited upon a group of women who long for freedom and happiness with a power that is so tangible and fierce that it screams from the page.

About a year ago, I reviewed a book called The Kitchen House which dealt with evils and horrors of slavery on a small plantation in the South. When I reviewed that book, I also posted a bit explaining that I felt uncomfortable reading these types of stories. What I realized while reading this book is that my feelings have slightly morphed, and now, instead of being discomfited by reading literature about slavery, I realize that I'm shamed and angered by it. I have a hard time believing there was ever a time when people were considered chattel. I mean, these were human beings, men, women and children, whose freedom was ripped away by another group of people who felt that they had more right to run their lives than they did. All of this was perpetrated based on the color of a person's skin, the random dressing of their heart and soul. I realize now that despite my initial reaction to want to steer clear of these books, I need to educate myself about this situation. It's a part of history that's hurtful and despicable, but by hiding my head in the sand, I not only avoid dealing with it, in some ways I deny to myself that these things happened at all. I credit a lot of this change of heart from reading Dolen Perkins-Valdez's book Wench.

From the opening pages, I felt there was a lot of restrained emotion and sadness seeping from this tale, and though Perkins-Valdez goes to amazing lengths not to include histrionics and melodrama, the pain and cataclysm of the lives of these women is on full display. It's interesting that she gives us the perspectives of four different women. Women who are ostensibly in the same situation but all have very different beliefs about it and reactions to it. Lizze, who is the main focus of the book, feels that she's different from the others because she's certian that her master Drayle loves her like an equal. Lizzie loves Drayle and and she deludes herself into believing that he cares for her and her feelings, when in fact the only difference between her and the others is that she has garnered a bit more freedom. It was clear to me that Drayle was no different than the other slave owners, and in some ways he was more selfish and cruel, because his decision-making processes and behavior mislead Lizzie into believing that she was the woman he loved and preferred This set her up for some devastating falls when he repeatedly refused to free their children.

Reenie, the oldest of the bunch, is a living life with a deadened soul. Her master Sir, who is also her half-brother, takes extreme liberties with her body both sexually and otherwise, even offering her over to the manager of the hotel, and Reenie is unable to contain her grief at the life she's forced to live. For most of the book Reenie is on the edge of the living and the dead, both fearful and resigned to what is happening to her. While Reenie is compliant only because she's broken, Sweet is another who tends to believe good things about her master. It's clear to everyone else when the pregnant Sweet is held as ransom while the other slaves take a sightseeing trip that Sweet is not so different than the others. Made to stand as the other women's surety, Sweet can only abide by the rules that are set for her, and taking this role even further, Sweet lives a life of relative concord with her master. Confusing the matter, it was clear to me that Sweet's master had relativley strong feelings for her, and while reading, I questioned the similarities between the hearts of Lizzie and Sweet. The difference between them, I think, was the fact that Sweet was a champion in compliance, whereas Lizzie questioned and bargained her way through all her misfortunes.

The last woman, Mawu, was very different from the rest. There was a certian amount of pride in her that she would not relinquish, no matter what the brutal Tip did to her. Her physical attributes were different as well, as she was described as having a fiery halo of red hair and freckles. Mawu is the only one of the four who ascribes to a mystical belief system rather than belief in the traditional Christian mindset, and she was the only one who worked diligently to give herself a different future than the one fate had in mind for her. Though she could be aggressive with the other women, it was her efforts to make the others take stock of their situations and her resolve to change her own that was the impetus for change within the group. It's arguable which of the slaves had suffered and endured the most, and where some would agree that it was Mawu, I would say her fate and Lizzie's were equally troubling to me. It's a sad fact of the time that there were no definite answers or solutions for the women and men in these situations, and though they all yearn for the freedom that will never be granted to them willingly, only a few would ever receive it.

I asked myself a lot of questions while reading this book, and quite a few of them made me uncomfortable. As Lizzie and the others begin to gain new awareness of themselves and the lives they lead, they also come into contact with free black men and women, abolitionist literature, and people hailing from the north, where slavery doesn't exist. They begin to wonder when they can expect to have these changes come into their lives, and at least one comes to the conclusion that it's better to physically give into her fate while mentally fighting against it. The book made me incredibly sad, and the very realistic character portrayals and situations within it opened up a world of debate inside my heart for these women and their real life counterparts, both male and female. A very sobering and intense read. Recommended.

This is one of the books that is to be highligted during this years Orlando UCF Book Festival, taking place on April 16th 2011 at the UCF Arena. For more information about the event, and to see a list of authors, please visit the Orlando UCF Book Festival website, and stay tuned for more information about the event in the upcoming weeks!

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 Washington, D.C. with her family.

Connect with Dolen:

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, January 25th:Lit and Life
Wednesday, January 26th:Man of La Book
Thursday, January 27th:Take Me Away
Monday, January 31st:Jo-Jo Loves to Read!
Wednesday, February 2nd:Bibliophiliac
Friday, February 4th:Rundpinne
Tuesday, February 8th:red headed book child
Thursday, February 10th:Chefdruck Musings
Monday, February 14th:In the Next Room
Tuesday, February 15th:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, February 16th:Debbie’s Book Bag
Thursday, February 17th:Peeking Between the Pages

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


bermudaonion said...

I really want to read this book. I'm sure it's intense, but I really love a book that begs me to ask questions like that. This book sounds amazing.

Happy Valentine's Day to you and your family, Heather!

Amy said...

Wow, sounds like a very difficult and painful read. So true that we need to read books like this though.

Aarti said...

I've got this one on my shelf, but as I read Page from a Tennessee Journal last year, I didn't want to read this one so closely following that one. This one seems to have a LOT more meat to it, in terms of hard-hitting facts on a number of topics. I will have to read it, though I think it will greatly disturb me, too.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous review, as usual. You're right that the book brings up an uncomfortable part of our history...but one that still needs to be told.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I too didn't read this one after reading Page from a Tennessee Journal - hard to explain, but it's encouraging that Aarti did the same thing! :--) But I feel I'll get to this one eventually!

Jenny said...

Wow, fantastic review! Definitely powerful and I can tell this book had a significant impact on you. I'm so excited the author will be at the ucf thing!!

Bookfool said...

I walked past a display of Wench at our Borders, today, and thought, "Someday I'm going to read that book." But, I didn't buy it. It sounds like a more difficult read than I'd been led to believe, though. I'll have to rethink whether or not to read it.

Beth F said...

I've had this one for about a year and keep meaning to read it. Now you've really convinced me that I need to stop putting it off.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Hey that was convenient, that you signed up for the blog tour and is a featured book at UCF. Cool! This story very much reminds me of "Cane River" which Books, Babes and Bordeaux read a couple of months ago. Focus on the slave women, relationships with their masters, their desire to get ahead, become free, the devastation of having families ripped apart. Very heartbreaking but important to know. Great review!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I liked this book a lot; read it when it was first released in hardcover. You are right though, I recall feeling a bit sad when I read it.

LisaMM said...

Fantastic review. My book club just voted this one in so we'll be discussing it in May. I wasn't that excited about it but now am really looking forward to it.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I know what you mean about wanting to avoid books that make you uncomfortable - I do the same thing quite often. I'm glad you have this book a try and that you ended up being moved by it. Thanks so much for being on the tour!

(As a side note, if you want to read another really good book that will make you think about slavery in a new way, check out KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. I highly recommend it!)

nomadreader said...

This one just came in for me at the library, and I'm looking forward to it. It's an embarrassing time in human history, but it's such an important story to be told. Beautifully written review!

Suko said...

This book does sound disturbing, intense, and worth reading. Excellent review!

Jenners said...

I know what you mean about feeling so angry/sad/confused when reading books about these topics. It is hard to believe that this was reality for many many people. I've heard really good things about this book. I suppose I shall have to add it to the TRB list.

JaneGS said...

I read this fabulous book not long ago and was blown away by how good it was. Your review really did justice to the powerful writing and the gripping, often painful stories and the emotions they produced.

Really enjoyed your review of this great book.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

A friend of mine loves reading about the civil war, but still has the some thoughts similar to the ones you voiced about not believing that there was a time that people treated other people the way that they did in this country. It is disturbing to consider.

Vasilly said...

It is hard to read books about slavery but I'm glad you decided to take the plunge anyway. I read this book last year and loved it so much. It's definitely a book that people should read.

Darlene said...

Fantastic review Heather! My review goes up tomorrow but doesn't hold a candle to yours. I agree that to read about the abuse the slaves endured is difficult. Yet at the same time I think these types of books are important for that very same reason. We read it and know that this should never happen again. I have an extremely difficult time even thinking how anyone can treat people like that. This novel will stay with me for a long time to come.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

When I first read about this book, I was absolutely blown away by the subject - I fancy myself a history buff, but clearly I was missing quite an important segment of a tragic part of history. Books that make me think, to question the very essence of humanity - that is what makes reading a passion. Love your review, Heather - as always!

Lisa said...

As much as the actions of the slaveholders bothered me, the idea that they could bring their slaves into a state that didn't allow slavery and have people still treat them so badly made me so angry.

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