Wench: A Novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
In 1848 American English, “wench” referred to “[a] colored woman of any age; a negress or mulattress, especially one in service.” Among far too many southern (utterly misnamed) ‘gentlemen’ (as these men exhibited nothing ‘gentle’ in their behavior), a wench’s expected service was sexual in nature, as well as consequently material as these favored bedmates often produced more slaves for ready sale.
Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel is a stunner. Four women gather to enjoy the summer at Tawawa House, a private retreat in Ohio for the wealthy, but especially popular with said Southern gentlemen as they are able to bring and openly engage with their slave mistresses. In the decade before the Civil War, talk of emancipation is on the rise, but hope for freedom is merely a dream for most slaves. At Tawawa House in 1852, Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet warily welcome the newcomer Mawu who is shockingly outspoken and clearly not much longer for the slave world.
Lizzie belongs to Drayle, the most humane of the title’s white men, but don’t be fooled into thinking he’s humane in any way. Married to the childless, moody Fran, he seduces Lizzie when she is just 13, and has had two children (the younger daughter emerges blonde, pale, and blue-eyed) with her by the time she is 16. Reenie belongs to her Sir – a horrifying, twisted man who turns out to be her half-brother, who ‘lends’ her out to the hotel manager in exchange for local prostitutes. Sweet, who is very pregnant, belongs to an unnamed master who seems mostly absent, except to continuously impregnate the long-suffering woman.
Mawu, property of the evil-to-the-core Tip, who has continuously brutalized her since she was a young child, knows she cannot survive much more. After watching her light-skinned children be sold off one by one, she has no more love left for the damaged last child she has left behind. Only freedom offers salvation … and somehow, she must get out.
The reading is riveting. Like a train wreck, you can’t turn away. While the characters are fictional, their stories are only too real. Sally Hemings (who was reportedly the half-sister of the wife of her owner, Founding Father/third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who was an outspoken abolitionist but still owned many slaves, including his own alleged slave children) is undoubtedly the most famous historical “wench” of all.
Novel though it may be, Tawawa Resort was a real place in Xenia, Ohio, that was open to guests from 1852 to 1855. “It is documented by historians,” writes Perkins-Valdez in the “Author’s Note,” “that Southern slaveholders frequented the resort with slave entourages … The presence of slave concubines is part of local oral history.” The truth in this novel is bound to disturb and haunt you. How some of these women manage to survive is nothing short of miraculous, even when sometimes death seems to be the best alternative of all.