Wench [NOOK Book]

Overview

An ambitious and startling debut novel that follows the lives of four women at a resort popular among slaveholders who bring their enslaved mistresses

wench 'wench n. from Middle English "wenchel," 1 a: a girl, maid, young woman; a female child.

Tawawa House in many respects is like any other American resort before the Civil War. Situated in Ohio, this idyllic retreat is particularly nice in the summer when the Southern humidity is too much ...

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Wench

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Overview

An ambitious and startling debut novel that follows the lives of four women at a resort popular among slaveholders who bring their enslaved mistresses

wench 'wench n. from Middle English "wenchel," 1 a: a girl, maid, young woman; a female child.

Tawawa House in many respects is like any other American resort before the Civil War. Situated in Ohio, this idyllic retreat is particularly nice in the summer when the Southern humidity is too much to bear. The main building, with its luxurious finishes, is loftier than the white cottages that flank it, but then again, the smaller structures are better positioned to catch any breeze that may come off the pond. And they provide more privacy, which best suits the needs of the Southern white men who vacation there every summer with their black, enslaved mistresses. It's their open secret.

Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet are regulars at Tawawa House. They have become friends over the years as they reunite and share developments in their own lives and on their respective plantations. They don't bother too much with questions of freedom, though the resort is situated in free territory–but when truth-telling Mawu comes to the resort and starts talking of running away, things change.

To run is to leave behind everything these women value most–friends and families still down South–and for some it also means escaping from the emotional and psychological bonds that bind them to their masters. When a fire on the resort sets off a string of tragedies, the women of Tawawa House soon learn that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the most inhuman, brutal of circumstances–all while they are bearing witness to the end of an era.

An engaging, page-turning, and wholly original novel, Wench explores, with an unflinching eye, the moral complexities of slavery.

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  • Dolen Perkins-Valdez
    Dolen Perkins-Valdez  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In her debut, Perkins-Valdez eloquently plunges into a dark period of American history, chronicling the lives of four slave women—Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu—who are their masters’ mistresses. The women meet when their owners vacation at the same summer resort in Ohio. There, they see free blacks for the first time and hear rumors of abolition, sparking their own desires to be free. For everyone but Lizzie, that is, who believes she is really in love with her master, and he with her. An extended flashback in the middle of the novel delves into Lizzie’s life and vividly explores the complicated psychological dynamic between master and slave. Jumping back to the final summer in Ohio, the women all have a decision to make—will they run? Heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez’s ability to bring the unfortunate past to life. (Jan.)
Library Journal
In this memorable first novel by Memphis-born Perkins-Valdez (English, Mary Washington Coll.), four friends meet each summer at a resort in Ohio but can share only snatches of time. Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu are black slaves brought to the resort each year by their vacationing Southern masters as personal servants and sexual companions. Their presence discomfits the Northern whites and black servants in the free state of Ohio, but the real angst lies within each woman's struggles: Mawu is determined to escape her sadistic master; Lizzie admires Mawu's independent spirit but concentrates her efforts on wheedling her master into granting freedom to her own children. VERDICT Readers of historical fiction centering on Southern women's stories like Lalita Tademy's Cane River or Lee Smith's On Agate Hill will be moved by the skillful portrayal of Lizzie's precarious situation and the tragic stories of her fellow slaves.—Laurie A. Cavanaugh, Brockton P.L., MA
Kirkus Reviews
A striking debut intimately limns a Southern slave's complicated relationship with her master. Perkins-Valdez (English/Univ. of Puget Sound) builds a convincing, nuanced portrait of Lizzie, a slave on Nathan Drayle's Tennessee plantation. Nathan took Lizzie as his mistress (if such a word can be used for the enslaved) as an adolescent; by the age of 16 she had borne him a son and daughter. He shows unguarded favor to Lizzie, moving her into the guestroom across from his wife's bedroom, teaching her to read and speak like a lady, seeming to need and care for her. In addition, her two light-skinned children are his only offspring. In the summer of 1852 Nathan takes his favored slave Philip and Lizzie to Tawawa House, an Ohio resort where Southern men bring their slave women. Ohio is a revelation to Lizzie. Free black men and women are employed at the hotel, and Lizzie sees a nearby resort catering to well-to-do African-Americans. For Lizzie and the other slaves she befriends that summer, this seems like the world turned upside down. The Southern men spend much of their time hunting, leaving Lizzie the opportunity to imagine a life away from slavery with Sweet (pregnant and doomed), Reenie (defeated by her master, who is also her white half-brother) and Mawu (redheaded, fierce and possessing voodoo charms). They meet Glory, an abolitionist Quaker who is the first white woman to speak to Lizzie as an equal. Mawu, Reenie and Philip talk of escaping, but Lizzie, fearing the slave catchers might hurt them, tells Nathan of their plan. The next summer, barely forgiven by the others for her betrayal, Lizzie begins to wonder why she loves Nathan, her protector and tormentor since childhood. Thiswondering is her first step toward freedom, and the potential of what the next summer may bring. Compelling and unsentimental.
Book Club Pick - NPR.org
"[A] fascinating and tragic story. . . . [A] compulsive read."
People Magazine
"A heartbreaker, full of understated tragedy and lyrical prose. . . . Perkins-Valdez has woven a devastatingly beautiful account of a cruel past."
Lalita Tademy
“A finely wrought story that explores the emotional lives of four slave women caught in the web of the Peculiar Institution.”
Margaret Cezair-Thompson
“This elegantly-structured novel sheds much-needed light on the racial intricacies of America’s past.”
Tayari Jones
“Through unforgettable characters and luscious prose, Wench stares down the difficult truths while never losing its beautiful beating heart. With all the weight of a historical excavation and the urgency of a page-turner, Perkins-Valdez establishes herself as a powerful new voice in fiction. ”
Sigrid Nunez
“A shattering story told with dignity, compassion, and some wicked humor. A brave, honest, beautifully written book that will shock and move readers to much new awareness.”
Jeffrey Lent
“Perkins-Valdez crawls under your skin and probes most gracefully in clear, concise lyric prose, ultimately asking the question that only extraordinary fiction can ask--what would you have done? A superb and outstanding achievement.”
BookPage
“[E]lectrifying. . . . [T]his remarkable novel skillfully dramatizes a dark chapter in American history. Writing with lyrical grace and a gift for plot development, Perkins-Valdez has produced an inspiring portrait of four brave women and the risks they take to change their lives.”
World Literature Today
“Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel, Wench, is outstanding: well crafted, imaginative, spellbinding, and above all satisfying.”
Book Club Pick NPR.org
“[A] fascinating and tragic story. . . . [A] compulsive read.”
Dawn Turner Trice
“A fabulously creative and daring historical novel .”
Essence
“Perkins-Valdez manages to shed a poetic light on one of the ugliest chapters in American history.”
USA Today
“Readers entranced by The Help will be equally riveted by Wench. A deeply moving, beautifully written novel told from the heart.”
Town & Country
“Perkins-Valdez memorably portrays how the entwined destinies of chattel and master, increasingly related by blood, passion and hatred, prefigure the looming national conflict. This is an almost forgotten, but important, chapter in American history--recorded as fiction but nonetheless full of hard facts.”
Booklist
“Drawing on research about the resort that eventually became the first black college, Wilberforce University, the novel explores the complexities of relationships in slavery and the abiding comfort of women’s friendships.”
People
“A heartbreaker, full of understated tragedy and lyrical prose. . . . Perkins-Valdez has woven a devastatingly beautiful account of a cruel past.”
Sacramento Book Review
“Absolutely phenomenal. . . . Wench is an excellent novel that will appeal to many readers. Debut author Dolen Perkins-Valdez has crafted a historical narrative that shouldn’t be missed.”
Sequim Gazette
“A powerful story.”
Seattle Times
“A mesmerizing read.”
The Network Journal
“Impressive. . . . There are countless stories to be told and to be read regarding the lingering emotional impact of slavery; and here, Perkins-Valdez has imagined a memorable one, her characters are framed within a well-crafted and expressive narrative.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061966354
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/5/2010
  • Sold by: HARPERCOLLINS
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 38,801
  • File size: 548 KB

Meet the Author

Dolen Perkins-Valdez's fiction and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, African American Review, North Carolina Literary Review, and the Richard Wright Newsletter. Born and raised in Memphis, a graduate of Harvard, and a former University of California President's Postdoctoral Fellow, Perkins-Valdez teaches creative writing at the University of Puget Sound. She splits her time between Washington, D.C. and Seattle, Washington. This is her first novel.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 350 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(109)

4 Star

(114)

3 Star

(80)

2 Star

(28)

1 Star

(19)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 350 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Every reader who enjoyed The Help will find Wench to be equally captivating.

    Similar to The Help, Wench is a beautifully written poignant story of four African-American women in the South; however, Wench takes place 100 years before The Help. Set in the 1850's, Wench is the tale of four slave women who meet when their masters bring them to a summer resort in Ohio. The author has created women with very strong characters who bond together as they balance the indignity and privilege of being their masters' concubines. The servants in The Help had to contend with the attitudes of the women whom they worked for, however, Wench shows how the female slaves' masters treated them: sometimes tenderly, sometimes brutally, and always like property. Because this summer resort is in the North, the hotel employs "free coloreds". This first glimpse at freedom poses another challenge to the slaves' self respect and causes them to re-examine their tolerance of their lives and to struggle with the dream of freedom.

    16 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2010

    Worth Your Time

    A quick read if you are looking for a well written piece of historical fiction. The author's detail allows one to clearly imagine the setting...everything from the sights to the smells. This book is well worth the time.

    14 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2010

    Ohio History in "Wench"

    Being a native of Northeast Ohio, I am always fascinated with literature that chronicles the social history of the 19th century. This area was a hotbed of political and economic controversy, as it was home to the abolishonist movement. The story of "Wench" begins in 1852 Xenia Ohio, at a resort frequented by Southern planters and their slave lovers. The author vividly conveys the aching need of the slaves to taste freedom, even for the few weeks of the summer vacations that they spend at the resort. The author also provides a disturbing look at the reality of slave wenches being so close to freedom, as in being on free soil, however remaining legally and emotionally bound to their masters. "Wench" will certainly becomes a must read for those interested in this time of history, when social, political, economic and racial forces combined to enslave both black and white in the greatest social change of our national history.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Wench is a must read for every American. The complex relationship between master and slave is thoroughly explored in this novel.

    The relationship between Master Drayle and his lover and slave, Lizzie, defies categorizing. A myriad of emotions exists between them. While Drayle remains master and is strong in the role, a love develops between them. While Drayle may tie Lizzie up at times, he also teaches her to read and finds her sister. He refuses to free the slave children they have had together, but bestows education and other benefits not available to other slaves on them. The historical accuracy of this phenomenon in America's past is something everyone should experience and have knowledge of. From the first page until the last, you will be mesmerized by the development of the characters and the lives they experience.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    Not the romanticized slavery story like "Gone with the Wind"!!! This book showed the brutality of one of the most embarrassing times of United States history. While not sugarcoating the subject matter, this book was also a story of hope and survival. To think of the original use of Wilberforce University, my God!!! This book also highlighted the plight of women regardless of color. I'm so glad I'm alive now. I don't think I could survive the times. A friend recommended this book thinking that it would make me angry, it caused tears instead. You should read this one!!!!!!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2010

    Boring.

    I tried to read this. I did not care about the characters at all. I found them boring and shallow. I didn't even finish the book. That is very rare for me.

    4 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Definitely a Book You Can't Put Down...Mesmerizing

    Before reading this book I had quite a bit of knowledge of the condition of the black female plantation slave, but this author has the style and technique to blend well-developed characterization with historical facts. As a reader, I found myself identifying with the 4 female slaves as they went on their annual "spa resort excursions" with their white masters. I felt their dehumanzing pain as well as some of the comic relief the narrator occaisonally inserted. As I began to understand their individual personality traits, I looked forward to their reactions to situations they found themselves in, how they would support one another, and to the various ways they would dare to rebel. At times I just wanted to leap out of my chair and wield my own style of justice at the white slave master because I knew the female slaves where basically powerless to do so. Although sad through many parts of the book, it was a beautiful story of how people can manage to bond and support each other in the face of adversity. I lent my book to others and they enjoyed in immensely, also. Please read it...it is a page turner. You won't be disappointed.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 27, 2010

    Anyone who liked "The Help" will also enjoy this book. It is historical fiction at its best, covering a subject that has previously been either taboo or ignored. The paradox of a life of privilege yet powerlessness within slavery.

    Readers of Historical fiction will enjoy this book. It explores the demimonde of the pre-Civil War South without being preachy or moralistic, but never-the-less it leaves the reader with powerful feelings of sympathy and horror. The book is well written and the characters interesting, varied, and believable. The setting is a resort hotel in Ohio where black slave owners take their mistresses for a summer vacation. Since Ohio was a free state, the slave women are exposed to the idea of "free blacks," which seems like an unbelievable concept to them. They are faced with many challenges, including facing the truth of their own lives and the daring choices that are given them. The reader will be asked to understand that sometimes courage means staying where you are, and sometimes it means running away. The options between those two extremes were few.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2012

    I loved the historical side of the book and the story lines were

    I loved the historical side of the book and the story lines were great -
    but I didnt like the way it ended. It seems that she could have written
    an additional 100 pages in order to tell more.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2012

    GREAT BOOK

    This book is a good read. I picked it up in the airport while I was heading to my vacation and couldn't put it down. I can't wait for another book by the author.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Refreshing!!!

    This novel has made it onto my list of favorites. This is a story I can read multiple times. Not only was the character development exquisite, but the plot, imagery, and language was written with class. The internal struggles of the main character were expressed perfectly. Due to some graphic scenes, I would reccomend this novel to anybody (Especially women) over the age of sixteen.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Good Read

    I have to admit, it took me a while to get into this book. I was expecting more because of the initial reviews.

    After I got into it (around Part II pg 87), I began to warm up to it a bit. As I read each chapter, I was itching to see what would happen next.

    While I liked the book, I do, however wish the ending had been a little stronger. It seemed to end over the course of the last 4 pages. After reading nearly the entire book, I kept holding out for a strong ending.

    This was a good book and I recommend it to you if you're considering whether to give it a read.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 4, 2013

    STRONGLY RECOMMEND

    I loved this story, held my interest from beginning to end, its heart
    breaking to think this was once acceptable. I strongly recommend this book, you will not be disappointed.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2012

    Ok book

    I was excited to read this book about one of the lesser known sides of slavery but it wasn't as good as I had hoped. The story finished open-ended, which was disappointing because after such a heart-wrenching story, I was really hoping for a more redemptive, fulfilling finish. Despite that, it was an interesting look into the life of a favored female slave and the issues that came with that.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2012

    Wonderful

    Simply amazing

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2012

    KP-Texas

    Well written novel set during the period of slavery. The author does a good job of describing the setting and the experiences that these women went through being forced to submit to the whims of their owners' sexual desires. It is difficult to truly understand the plight of slaves and what they went through. This book gives a little insight into an aspect that is not often discussed in our history lessons. Good read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2012

    good historically-based fiction

    This was based on a new aspect of slavery for me but the ending was missing something.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2011

    emotionally wrenching

    I was taken on a long ride of the lives of slave women and it tore at my soul! It was one thing to be a women in this era but quite another to be a slave woman and to bear children under these consquences.
    This book was beautifully written and lives were so descriptive that I could see everything as though I was watching a movie but a movie that you could not turn off or walk away from.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 23, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    With sharp, clean prose, Perkins-Valdez delivers a story that's sometimes tragic, at times hopeful and thoroughly compelling.

    It's a little known fact, but back in the mid-1800's, there was a resort in Ohio called Tawawa House. It was a summer resort, frequented by slave owners and their slave mistresses. When Perkins-Valdez learned of this, she was amazed that such a place existed. Intrigued by the idea, she crafted a tale about four women, all friends, and how their roles as mistresses were not always clear-cut. This is Lizzie's story. Drayle purchased her as a young girl. Gave her books, treated her as if she mattered and as she grew into a young woman, her love of Drayle grew as well. It doesn't matter that he is married to Fran. Lizzie knows that he holds a special place in his heart for her and when she gives him the children that Fran can't, she feels that her position in the house is secure. To confirm this, Drayle takes her to Tawana House each summer. There, they sleep in the same room. She cooks for him, cleans for him, yet in her head, she is the one he loves. At first, she is happy playing this role, but as she becomes close friends with the other women, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu, she begins to question her importance and as her own children get older, she is often reminded that they are in fact, slaves. This is a wonderful, complex story about a slave and her white master but it's also a story about friendship. It's difficult to understand how a slave could ever love her master, but to Lizzie, Drayle is everything to her. And although she knows she is tied to him because of the children, she really can't imagine life any other way. Lizzie's story is tragic, because as a reader you can clearly see the master/slave lines but Lizzie can't. Not at first. But somehow, I wasn't frustrated with Lizzie. I wanted her to make different choices, sure, but I didn't fault her for the ones she made. What's strange is that I felt sorry for Fran as well. She knows full well what is going on in her house, but she doesn't have the power to do much about it. Oh yes, she tries, but she too, learns a thing or two in the end. I've read a few books dealing with slave/master relations, but none of them were quite like this one. This story was unique and it left me thinking about things long after I finished it. I highly recommend it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Eh

    It wasnt very good. I really dont want to waste a review on it. Its an interestig concept but poorly executed in my opinion

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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