Wench is a story of historical fiction set in the mid-1800's mostly in Ohio at Tawawa House, a summer resort popular among Southern white men for getaways with their enslaved Black mistresses. First, to learn the existence of such a place caught me by surprise. This is one piece of slavery's history I don't think I expected to ever learn about. The four women who inhabit Perkins-Valdez's debut novel are all very different and pretty well developed. Sweet's name is befitting her mostly soft disposition. Reenie is deemed the wise elder among the ladies, yet she's terrified of water. Lizzie seems to be the most complacent and comfortable with her relationship with her master, Drayle. Mawu is the newest mistress and comes in as intriguing with her African name and non-Christian beliefs. It doesn't take long for Mawu to instigate the idea of the ladies escaping to freedom.
At about a quarter into the book, we get some back story on the development of the relationship between Lizzie and Drayle on their Tennessee plantation. This is an important section as it reveals the complexities of Lizzie's feelings towards her master and how those feelings cause a tug-of-war for her when it comes to the idea of her being a free woman. Perkins-Valdez does a very nice job of incorporating this portion without it disrupting the story's flow and seeming unnecessary. The dynamics of Lizzie relationship with her children and Drayle's wife, Fran, are also revealed. It's Lizzie's role as a mother/ child-bearer, and that of the other women, that is almost paramount to their feelings toward seeking freedom. The last summer that all of the women are together at Tawawa House brings a number of tragedies that catapult them into various directions away from each other, but not in spirit.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez writes very clean and, sometimes, lyrical prose. Her characterizations are not as fully realized as I would have liked for other characters besides Lizzie, but ultimately this is Lizzie's story. I did, however, feel invested in these four women. Though, I've not done any research on Tawawa House, I'm confident the essence of the setting have captured beautifully. Wench is an exciting debut as it's filled a widely unknown void in the history of American slavery and I'm looking forward to Dolen Perkins-Valdez's future writings.