A man and a woman trek each year to their summer home – a charming white cottage, part of an elegant resort, the surrounding land filled with natural springs famed for their healing powers. Periodically, the man goes off on hunting trips with his buddies, and the woman stays behind at the resort, enjoying the chance to spend time with her friends, talking with them about their lives, their children, and their men, while they walk together through the woods, cook meals, and fix each other’s hair.
Sounds idyllic, right? Well, not quite. The women in this scenario are slaves, the men are their white masters, and the women travel to the resort in chains. This is the story told in “Wench,” a powerful first novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Set in 1852 to 1854, with a flashback to Southern plantation life in 1842 to 1849, the novel takes place in an Ohio resort where Southern slave owners come each summer with a retinue of slaves, including the women who they sleep with – their slave mistresses.
The story unfolds from the point of view of Lizzie, one of the mistresses. Her feelings are not what you might expect. She loves her master, or at least she thinks she does. They have two children together, and back at the Tennessee plantation, she and her master Drayle share a room together in Drayle’s house, right across the hall from the room where his wife sleeps alone.
But reality keeps on intruding on Lizzie’s belief in the security of her love. Her children – Drayle’s children – were born slaves, and though Lizzie repeatedly begs Drayle to free them, he always refuses, annoyed at her repeated requests. Her friends at the resort, her fellow slave-concubines, suffer humiliating abuses at the hands of their masters. Events, which I won’t reveal here, eventually force Lizzie to make some difficult choices.
The novel gives a glimpse into an aspect of slavery that hasn’t been written about as much as others. The relationships between the masters and their slaves depicted here are mind-boggling, a bizarre combination of affection and disdain, love and hatred, and choice and coercion, with the drives for self-preservation and for freedom always bubbling beneath the surface, searching for ways to break through.
The subject matter in the book is often grim, and includes graphic scenes of rape and torment, but the book is a page turner which is hard to put down. It brings the characters, especially the main character Lizzie, to life.
There really was a resort like the one described in the book, which attracted Southerners who traveled with an entourage of slaves. The presence of the slaves offended the local Northerners, many of whom were abolitionists, and the resort closed down after only four years. After that, the land became the first university for African-Americans – a university that is still running today.
How accurate the rest of the book is historically, I couldn’t say. Some things, such as the relationship between Drayle’s wife and Lizzie’s children, seem unlikely. In parts, the pacing of the book is a bit off, rushed in places where it might have been better to slow down. But though this may not be a perfect book, it is an outstanding one, a compelling read that brings to life a shameful chapter of history. It will give you much to think about and introduce you to characters you are unlikely to forget.