Rashida's Reviews > Wench

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
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Mar 01, 11

bookshelves: herstory, historical-fiction, unexpected-enjoyment
Read from January 27 to February 03, 2011

Slavery in America. What an awful window into the human soul. Being a black woman, it's a subject that I both never wish to have to confront again, but also know that I MUST be educated about, even when the social institutions responsible for conveying history fail to give it the proper illumination. So, I go through these reading binges and purges, where I read many books on slavery and then just bear to read another word. I first heard of Wench when I was at the end of a binge, and I had no interest in reading this novel, frankly. I was emotionally worn on the subject, and reading the descriptions, I was imagining some Harlequin romance retelling. So, it did not make the to-read shelf.

But my Goodreads friends kept reading it and giving it more stars than less. And if I may brag on y'all, I have some pretty reliable goodreads friends with pretty sophisticated taste levels. So, while being dragged through some huge big box member only warehouse store, I saw this book on the paperbacks table and decided to make my own contribution to the development of literary fiction by a person of color.

Though I've gone this far without mentioning what I thought of the book, yet, I hope that you'll agree with me that the background was necessary to highlight my attitude going into this: ambivalent at best. I was pleasantly surprised. Perkins-Valdez takes a historical footnote and seems to realistically extrapolate it into this portrait of women that history has ignored. In telling the story of four different women, she shows the different ways that a woman's life in this circumstance could have looked, while showing the undeniable cruelty involved in any iteration of this system of human bondage. I am grateful to her for writing such a story. I could not fulfill my duty of being educated about my ancestors if there are not people willing to tell the stories, and to do so beautifully.

What this book, and truthfully many books in this genre, does not do, is answer the question: how could this happen. It does not get into the mind of the men and explain how a person could, without experiencing a psychotic break, view a person as both their lover and their property, their child and no better than an animal. Perkins-Valdez wasn't necessarily trying to do this, but it remains the great unanswered for me. How did the people responsible for such unthinkable acts justify themselves. Adding to the unfathomable failure of so many human beings to act in a recognizably human manner is that fact that these men are professing to have some sort of feeling for these women. Yes, maybe just lustful, but in the very act of bringing the women to a vacation resort, aren't they acknowledging that there is a degree of humanity to them. That their lives have room for improvement from the conditions they are regularly subjected to? So, how? Just how did slavery happen?

Yes, I know that just as there are first hand accounts of slavery surviving, there are some (though not many, and not representing the average) first hand accounts from slave owners themselves. But, for all my questioning of motives and justifications, I cannot honestly say that I wish to expose myself to them.

The main point of this review, then, is that the subject matter is difficult, the reading of it is painful, many raised questions are unanswered because they are unanswerable, but if you are up to it, these women's stories deserve to be read.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by jo (new)

jo i love this heartfelt review. i am just going to say that the following -- "how a person could, without experiencing a psychotic break, view a person as both their lover and their property, their child and no better than an animal" -- happens every day, even without institutionalized ownership of human beings by other human beings. it's just one of those things, human nature, the problem of evil, the banality of evil, what we are all capable of under the right circumstances, what we all do, for instance, when we continue buying cheap clothes we know have been manufactured in profoundly unjust conditions. it's hard to swim upstream. it's so hard that it can kill you.


message 2: by Sarah (new)

Sarah wow this is a great review! can we be friends? =)


Wilhelmina WEB DuBois did a sociological study in which he proved that white folks who practiced such cruel and inhuman racism had to be mentally ill. Of course he had to leave Atlanta really quickly after it was published.


Rashida Jo- I take your point. This is actually similar to one of the (personal) issues that I had with Who Fears Death. I greatly wanted to believe that there is enough "good" in humanity that such an entrenched genocidal culture wouldn't take root this way again. Is that ignoring centuries of evidence to the contrary about "the banality of evil?" Yes, probably. But I just have to keep hope alive. But, isn't there a huge difference between disassociating yourself from the stories you have heard of child labor, and me caring for Z, comforting her, supplying for her, loving her, and then bundling her up and sending her on her way to that factory? Wielding the lash myself? It's too horrible to contemplate.

Sarah- Thanks! Friend request accepted.

Mina- Yes, I bet that environment quickly became even more hostile. Good on him for even getting it published.


message 5: by Hazel (last edited Mar 02, 2011 01:05PM) (new)

Hazel Thank you, Rashida. Rather than bingeing and purging, I tend to ration my reading on subjects like this. These unanswered questions, about unthinkable acts often feel too difficult for me, too horrible to contemplate but also baffling, confounding.

Others here have sung the praises of this book, but I think for now I'll just read your thoughtful reviews, and appreciate them.


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