Lizzie, 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.
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|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:
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.