Thursday, October 13, 2011


Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Amistad, 2010, 290 pp

The provocative title would not necessarily have convinced me to read this novel but it was a reading group pick. The eponymous wenches are four slave women in the mid 1800s whose masters bring them on vacation each summer.

Outside Cincinnati, OH, a resort caters to men who enjoy hunting. Both slave-owning Southerners and abolitionist Northerners coexist in uneasy detachment, with the Southerners and the wenches eschewing the hotel for a group of cabins.

When the men go off hunting, often for days at a time, the slave women gather and talk things over. Each of the four is from a different plantation but they have come to know each other over several summers.

A Quaker woman who lives back in the woods with her husband, provides fresh vegetables to the hotel. Her cabin is a stop on the Underground Railroad, so she becomes a source of fascination for the wenches. They begin to steal away for visits to the cabin where they dream of freedom.

I couldn't stop comparing this book to Beloved, because of the location and the subject matter. Though this story draws on the complex fears, attachments and sufferings of the women, it does not begin to wield the power of Toni Morrison's book.

The deepest meanings in Wench came from an examination of the ties these women had with their children who, being fathered by their white masters, lived a precarious existence. Should the plantation wives take up against these offspring, they could be sold away, but the master could also decide to educate a son giving him a chance in life. The daughters of course were doomed to follow in their mother's footsteps.

The decisions these women made about freedom, about their children, and the consequences thereof, provide the tension in the novel. The story gives another look at slavery and the damage done to families because of it.

(Wench is available in paperback and hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available by order as a e-book.)

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