By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
(Amistad, Hardcover, 9780061706547, 304pp.)
Publication Date: January 2010
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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 territorybut 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 mostfriends and families still down Southand 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 circumstancesall 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.
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.
The relationship between slave masters and the slaves who were their lovers can be difficult to fathom. But author Dolen Perkins Valdez takes on the subject in her a new book, titled Wench. Guest host Lynn Neary talks with Valdez about the project and the prevalence of such taboo relationships during the slavery era. More at NPR.org
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- Lizzie is a house slave. How does this position differ from working in the fields? How does this status affect her day-to-day existence? What impact does it have for her children?
“[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.”
“[A] fascinating and tragic story. . . . [A] compulsive read.”
-NPR.org, Book Club Pick
“[A] memorable and engaging debut.”
-Library Journal, Best Books of 2010
“Readers entranced by The Help will be equally riveted by Wench. A deeply moving, beautifully written novel told from the heart.”
“A heartbreaker, full of understated tragedy and lyrical prose. . . . Perkins-Valdez has woven a devastatingly beautiful account of a cruel past.”
“Perkins-Valdez manages to shed a poetic light on one of the ugliest chapters in American history.”
“A fabulously creative and daring historical novel .”
-Dawn Turner Trice, Chicago Tribune
“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.”
-Town & Country
“A mesmerizing read.”
“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.”
-Sacramento Book Review
“A powerful story.”
“Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel, Wench, is outstanding: well crafted, imaginative, spellbinding, and above all satisfying.”
-World Literature Today
“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.”
-The Network Journal
“In her debut, Perkins-Valdez eloquently plunges into a dark period of American history. . . . Heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez’s ability to bring the unfortunate past to life.”
“A striking debut intimately limns a Southern slave’s complicated relationship with her master. . . . Compelling and unsentimental.”
“[A] memorable first novel . . . 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.”
-Library Journal (starred review)
“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.”
“A finely wrought story that explores the emotional lives of four slave women caught in the web of the Peculiar Institution.”
-Lalita Tademy, author of Cane River and Red River
“This elegantly-structured novel sheds much-needed light on the racial intricacies of America’s past.”
-Margaret Cezair-Thompson, author of The Pirate's Daughter (a #1 Indie Next Pick)
“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. ”
-Tayari Jones, author of Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling
“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.”
-Sigrid Nunez, author of The Last of Her Kind and A Feather on the Breath of God
“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.”
-Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall and A Peculiar Grace