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Wench: A Novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench: A Novel (edition 2010)

by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

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912729,640 (3.76)55
Title:Wench: A Novel
Authors:Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Info:Amistad (2010), Hardcover, 304 pages
Collections:Currently reading, Library books
Tags:currently reading, library, fiction, historical fiction, women writers, African American

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Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez


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Showing 1-5 of 72 (next | show all)
I would not suggest this book for anyone under the age of 18. Some things are a bit graphic. It starts off really slow, gets really good, then has a few more slow moments but its worth reading. ( )
  obridget2 | May 14, 2017 |
I love coming across a new author and a first novel. According to her website, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Story Quarterly, Story South, and elsewhere. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. She received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her forthcoming second novel, Balm. Dolen teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine. She is a graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA. She is a popular guest for Black History and Women's Month programs. Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family. Her First novel, Wench is an absorbing, heart rending story of a group of women slaves in the middle of the 19th century.

I have read a number of African-American novels in my time. Among these are Beloved (and others) by Toni Morrison, Eva’s Man by Gayle Jones, and of course, the novels of Zora Neale Hurston. While they all contained horrific accounts of African-Americans, and all were compelling and well-written, none had the lyric beauty of Dolen’s prose. The novel has a number of pastoral scenes frequently interrupted by the horrors of slavery.

The novel centers around four slaves, Sweet, Lizzie, Reenie, and Mawu. All are owned by men with a varying degree of concern for their slaves. Lizzie was the mistress of Drayle, who treated her better than most slave owners, but, nevertheless he was not above slapping or raping her. She knew early on Drayle’s wife was unable to conceive, and so after Lizzie twice became pregnant, her focus shifted to her son Nate and her daughter Rabbit in hopes of earning their freedom.

Perkins-Valdez writes, “The slaves had been back at Tawawa house for only a short time before Mawu was spotted sweeping her cottage porch as if she’d never left. As they passed one another, they gave the silent signal to meet at the stables that night: eye contact, a glance in the direction of the stables, and brushed fingertips down the forearm to signal dusk” (34). These women were resourceful.

As the women became acquainted with Mawu, she told her story. Dolen writes, “Mamu told them she was telling her story so they would know why she couldn’t go back to Louisiana, why she didn’t feel the same pull they felt toward their children. She didn’t live in the big house like Lizzie. Her children did not have special favors like Sweet’s. She hadn’t had a cabin built for her like Reenie. She was just a slave like any other – beaten, used, and made to feel no different than a cow or a goat or a chicken” (42). Later in the novel, Wamu was whipped into unconsciousness because her owner, Tip, heard she was thinking about running away.

Because of her special “relationship” with Drayle, Lizzie was taught to read. Perkins-Valdez writes, “As Lizzie learned the meaning s of new words and what the letters looked like on the page, it became more difficult to hide the fact she could read. She wanted to read everything. She scanned the spines of books along the shelves in Drayle’s library. She looked over [Mistress] Fran’s shoulder as she cleaned around her, straining to make out the handwriting of Fran’s mother. She wanted to read to the slaves in the cabins. There was only one man among them who could read the newspaper, and Lizzie thought she might be able to read as well as he could. She wanted to show him up, prove that women could learn, have everyone’s eyes hungry for her mouth to open and turn the piece of pulp in her hands into hope” (94-95). Despite living under the most extremely horrific circumstances, the thirst to learn burned in Lizzie’s heart.

Time and again, when things seemed hopeless, and one of the women said they needed the help of a man, “No. […] Us can do this our own selves” (187). Near the end of the novel, Lizzie thinks about her daughter. Dolen writes, “As she leaned against the porch post, she thought of Rabbit and what she would teach her. This was what she would say: Don’t give in to the white man. And if you have to give in, don’t give your soul over to him. Love yourself first. Fix it so you don’t give him children. If you ever make it to freedom, remember your mammy who tried to be good to you. Hold fast to your women friends because they are going to be there when ain’t nobody else there. If you don’t believe in God, it’s all right. God believes in you. Never forget your name. Keep track of your years and how old you are. Don’t be afraid to say how you feel. Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts” (287-288). I find it difficult to imagine a mother having to give her daughter advice like this. It reminds me of the mothers in Ferguson, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities where woman have to teach their children to fear the police and how to act if stopped. This passage brought tears to my eyes.

The strength, courage, intelligence, and persistence of these four women was heart-warming, and, sometimes, horrific. But against overwhelming odds, these woman managed to maintain their dignity and raise children, all the while under the constant threat of the whip. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a tremendously inspiring story. While not sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, it demonstrated how – under incredibly difficult circumstances – they were able to maintain a sense of decency to pass onto their children. 5 stars

--Jim, 4/30/17 ( )
  rmckeown | May 13, 2017 |
Eloquent, beautifully written historical fiction. Tawawa House was a summer retreat in Ohio where southern slaveholders often brought their slave mistresses. It now exists as the oldest private university for African-Americans. The story revolves around the friendships among 4 female slaves and offers excellent insight into the complicated relationships among the masters and slaves as well as between the slaves themselves. Their experiences, hopes, dreams and their often heartbreaking choices made for graphic, difficult reading at times, yet I couldn't put it down. A haunting read and one I won't soon forget. ( )
  janb37 | Feb 13, 2017 |
There were parts of this book that I thought very very powerful and parts of it that I thought were melodramatic and overwritten. I did think the writing fell apart in the very last pages of the book.

It reminded me very much of The Help, although I liked it quite a bit more than that book. It is a greater success partially, I think, because the setting of this book is less well-known and Perkins-Valdez can find more new and interesting things to say about it than Kathryn Stockett could find to say about her setting. Perkins-Valdez also has a defter hand with characterization. Fran and Master Drayle had some interesting complications and shades, and Lizzie was better drawn than most of the characters in The Help.

Still. If you can only read one book on this subject, read Valerie Martin's Property. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
Interesting story, although I was expecting things to go in a different direction. The ending seemed incomplete. ( )
  CosimaS | Jul 3, 2016 |
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Mancheril, EminCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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(c. 1290): A girl, maid, young woman; a female child.
(1362): A wanton woman; a mistress.

United States:
(1812; 1832): A black or colored female servant; a negress.
(1848): A colored woman of any age; a negress or mulattress, especially one in service.
Her beauty was notorious through all that part of the country; and colonel Moore had been frequently tempted to sell her by the offer of very high prices. All such offers however, he had steadily rejected; for he especially prided himself upon owning the swiftest horse, the handsomest wench, and the finest pack of hounds in all Virginia.

The Slave: or Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836)
Dedicated to my parents:

Barbara and James Perkins

For belief, support, and love.
First words
Six slaves sat in a triangle, three women, three men, the men half nestled in the sticky heat of thighs, straining their heads away from the tightly woven ropes.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet, three enslaved African-American mistresses who are regularly brought to a resort called the Tawawa House prior to the Civil War, contemplate running for freedom after a fire sets off a series of tragedies.
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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.--From publisher description.… (more)

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