Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Wench - Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Merry Christmas, everyone!  We are so grateful to work for a university and consequently get a little extra time off during the holidays.  It's always a great time to get a little extra reading in, and that's just what I have been doing.  At this point, I only have one book to go to finish my 2012 challenge.  From here, it's only a matter of deciding which of the 5 books I'm halfway through will be the one I finish - or if I should start a new one altogether.  Six days left and I am well within reach!  It feels good!

I stayed home sick two days last week and it gave me the opportunity to finish up this gem.  I really do not remember how this book presented itself to me.  It does not fall within the categories of what I normally read.  I love historical fiction as much as the next person and have read quite a bit of it over the years.  I have not, however, read an abundance of historical fiction revolving around slave stories.  Some way or another, Wench caught my attention.  Perkins-Valdez's novel does not reflect the typical plot set on a Southern plantation.  Rather, the story is that of a hotel resort where some Southern slave owners would vacation, often with their slave mistresses.

To my surprise, as I started into the novel, I began to realize that this novel was set literally just down the road from me.  The Tawawa House, the resort to which the vacationers and their slaves came, was an actual place in the 1850s.  While Perkins-Valdez story is fiction, the setting and context for the story were all too real.  Upon investigation, I realized the Tawawa House was located on what is now the grounds of Wilberforce University.  Kevin and I live less than ten minutes from their campus.  We drive by it several times a week.  Suddenly knowing that aspects of this story really happened so close to me made the book seem much more personally relatable.

The story centers on Lizzie, a black woman who has been her master's mistress for many years.  She has two children by him and maintains an increasingly complex relationship with him and his wife, the mistress of their Tennessee estate.  For several consecutive years, Lizzie and her master have traveled north of the Ohio River to the Tawawa House for the summer.  They, along with three other "couples" are summer regulars.  Lizzie and the other slave women grow close over the years and together face the complexities of being slaves in a free state.

Perkins-Valdez does not shy away from difficult issues.  Lizzie clearly loves her master and believes that he loves her, yet he refuses to grant their children freedom.  Mawu, another slave woman, carries on a highly abusive relationship with her master.  He rapes her in front of everyone at the resort as punishment.  Sweet, another of the women, loses her children one by one.  Freedom is within reach for them all as they are across the border of the Ohio River, yet it is too frightening to imagine what would happen - not only to them, but to their loved ones back on the plantations.  It is this repeated exposure to freedom and the increasing despair that leads to the climax of the novel. I will admit, I found Lizzie's choice at the end slightly unsatisfying, yet completely understandable.

Just as with Reading Lolita in Tehran, this book coincided with the release of a relevant movie for me.  Kevin and I saw Lincoln with my parents two nights ago.  Positively brilliant and deeply thought provoking.  Now, as I wrap up my final reflections on Wench, I feel inundated with reminders of the value of human life.  This discussion is not one that applies only to slavery, of course, but to see the conversation from the viewpoint of another era has been helpful to me.  I am reminded, particularly today on Christmas, that every life has significance.  Slavery may no longer look the same, but it remains among us.  We hold each other in bondage in many ways, often through our judgement of each other.  Take time to minister to the "least of these" among us this holiday season.  But don't stop there.  Let us fight for their well-being and freedom until every life is valued equally - as it is in the eyes of God.

Pages: 320
Date Completed: December 18, 2012

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