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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 territory–but 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 most–friends and families still down South–and 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 circumstances–all 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.

290 pages, Hardcover

First published December 16, 2009

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About the author

Dolen Perkins-Valdez

10 books1,716 followers
Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the New York Times bestselling author of Wench (2010), Balm (2015), and most recently Take My Hand (2022). Take My Hand was awarded the 2023 NAACP Image Award for Literary Work-Fiction and the BCALA Fiction Award. It was named a Most Anticipated Book of 2022 in Newsweek, San Francisco Chronicle, Essence, NBC News, and elsewhere, and it was an IndieNext and LibraryReads pick for April 2022. The Washington Post called it "a jewel of a book."

Dolen has established herself as a pre-eminent chronicler of American historical life. In 2017, HarperCollins released her first novel Wench as one of eight "Olive Titles," limited edition modern classics that included books by Edward P. Jones, Louise Erdrich, and Zora Neale Hurston. In 2013, Dolen wrote the introduction to a special edition of Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave, published by Simon & Schuster, which became a New York Times bestseller. Recently, Dolen has written the Introduction for a 75th anniversary edition of George Orwell's 1984.

Dolen is the current Chair of the Board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,236 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
March 5, 2020
Set in the mid 19th Century, Wench offers a fictionalized account of a very real and strange practice. Southern slaveowners would vacation in a particular Ohio resort and take slave women along as their vacation partners, leaving their wives at home. The story centers on several slave women, their different backgrounds, experiences with slavery and relationships with the masters. All are used sexually, but one, Lizzie, holds actual feelings for her owner.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez - from her Twitter page

This is an engaging story, one that offers some insight into what it might have been like to be a slave. It raises questions about the experience. For example, is it at all possible for a person who is regarded as chattel to have real affection for her owner, however kind that man may be? Can a slave ever give herself freely to her owner or is any physical relationship rape by the nature of the relationship between the parties, in the same way that society today considers sex between an adult and a minor rape because a minor is assumed not to have the ability to offer responsible consent?

One might think that slaves brought to free Ohio would seize every opportunity to flee. But what if their children were still back on the plantations as insurance for their return?

I was engaged with the book pretty much for its entirety. I questioned a few decisions the author made for her characters, wondering if they really would have acted in such a manner. But overall, this is a solid read, offering payload in the form of a look at an odd aspect of the history of slavery in America.

==============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Perkins-Valdez's subsequent novel Balm was released in 2015
Profile Image for Maegen.
26 reviews23 followers
January 20, 2011
Wench was a book club choice and I was quite frustrated by it's selection. I hate reading about slavery or anything connected to it. It makes me uncomfortable, sad and angry. Furthermore, the idea that this story focused on the lives and relationships of four slave mistresses turned my stomach. Needless to say, I struggled with this book. It was incredibly difficult for me to get through. I read and put it down so many times that I often thought of not picking it up again, but I kept coming back to it until I finished it-several weeks later. In the end, it was well worth the emotional journey. Even now, many months after reading it, I'm at a lost as to how to articulate why this book is so important, a must read and the best book of 2010 for me. There were so many moments I cringed, wanted to cry, even fight. I realized that is a part of the book's charm--the emotional roller coaster of reading it. Not to mention, the rich history Perkins-Valdez weaves in so brilliantly. She's an excellent writer. I'm happy that I finished the book and am certain that I will never think about slavery and enslaved women the same ever again. I am so grateful to have been challenged in this way.

Profile Image for Tayari Jones.
Author 24 books28.9k followers
May 29, 2010
Today I received my copy of Wench, the new novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I really loved this book. (And what a gorgeous cover!)The novel is set at Tawawa House-- an actual Ohio resort where white plantation owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses.

I know that there are some readers who are very tired of the American fixation with slave mistresses. I know know where you are coming from. However, this novel is different. For one thing, Wench is the story of four women who are in the same situation. This is a wonderfully modern twist on the historical novel. The four-friend structure, a sly wink at Terry Mac, allows us to see how different women respond to the conundrum of sexual slavery. Never in all my reading have I ever seen enslaved mistresses talk to each other. (Their conversations will give you a lot to think about.)

One of my favorite scenes is when one of the women is saying how much she liked Tawawa House because "we can spend time with our men." Another woman says, "You know he's not your man, don't you?" A Tawawa House, some women play house with their "master" while others plan escape.

This is a hard book to describe. After reading it, I feel weird using the word "mistress." I feel like we need a whole new vocabulary. What do you call a woman who is in a sexual relationship with a man who can sell her kids if he feels like it? Are you a "mistress" if you travel to a resort vacation literally in chains? This book is not romantic, nor is it preachy. Dolen wrestles with the truth and doesn't blink.

The most impressive aspect of this story is Dolen's way of making you unsure of who is right, and who has the best idea. I read this novel is one greedy gulp. The intellectual in me was intrigued by the historical matter. The philosopher in me was roped in with questions about the nature of freedom and progress.

Finally, the part of me that curls up in a slanket, well she stayed up late at night reading because I just had to know what was going to happen next.
Profile Image for Monica **can't read fast enough**.
1,033 reviews335 followers
April 20, 2022
Reading WENCH required me to constantly push aside my modern sensibilities. Knowing what enslaved women had to endure and in many instances convince themselves of in order to simply survive and maintain some sense of sanity is hard to accept. Lizzie is the perfect example of the divided and sometimes misguided loyalties that many slave women had to face. Taken from the only home that she had known and placed on a new plantation at a very young age, Lizzie doesn't have any semblance of a childhood. Lack of affection, courtesy, and any positive attention Lizzie is ripe for being emotionally manipulated by her master. What put a little knife in my heart is the fact that a very young Lizzie is easily seduced by minimal kindness and glasses of water.

The four women followed in this story all have very different and unique personalities. They are all handling their stations in life differently but with one common thread. None of them have any say over their lives or the lives of the people they love; not even their children. Of the four women, only Lizzie has any affection for the man who holds her in bondage. Because of her conflicting loyalties it takes her a while to figure out her real place in the world and I found that just as frustrating as the other three women in the story. I had to remind myself that Lizzie is forced into womanhood and motherhood so quickly and at such a young age that she had to find a way to cope with what happens to her. Convincing herself that Drayle cares for her and her children makes things tolerable. However, Lizzie's willful blindness cause great harm to other people who should have been able to count on her.

Although I did enjoy WENCH there were a few circumstances left unfinished and I have some unanswered questions that I would have liked to have had filled in. The story ends abruptly and I just didn't feel as if the story was finished. If it had been an ebook instead of a physical book I would have sworn the last of the story hadn't downloaded. WENCH was published in 2010 and there is no follow up as of yet which is a shame. I would have loved to have gotten a story for Reenie and Mawu although I know that Mawu's story would be gut wrenching.

Where you can find me:
•(♥).•*Monica Is Reading*•.(♥)•
Twitter: @monicaisreading
Instagram: @readermonica
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews945 followers
November 25, 2015
Lizzie is a woman in love, on holiday with her lover, a man married to someone else... or is she? What happens to these phrases when we add that Lizzie is a slave, and her 'lover' is her master? Wench confronts this problem from Lizzie's perspective:
Inside the cottage, Lizzie felt human. She could lift her eyes and speak the English Drayle had taught her. She could run her hands along the edges of things in the parlour – two chairs, a sofa, a wooden table, a tall oil lamp with a milkglass base, a cast-iron stove – as if they were hers. And she could sit.
If Lizzie's occasional access to such simple pleasures is exceptional for a slave, Perkins-Valdez leaves us in no doubt about the limited extent of her privileges when on the very next page we read her rehearsing a calm request, but then begging Drayle to free their children, the only ones he has fathered. Drayle sidesteps, avoiding the question. There's never the slightest suggestion of equality in their relationship; though Drayle sometimes makes an effort to keep Lizzie sweet, she is his servant at all times and in all ways. Reading community reviews of this book, I can see that many readers found the topic extremely painful and difficult to read. The ambiguities and implications of Lizzie and her children's status make this a deeply uncomfortable book.

However, there are a lot of things that make it an enjoyable book, less harsh, I felt, than other slave stories. Chiefly, there is friendship. No doubt about this. The relationships Lizzie has with Mawu, Philip, Reenie and Sweet are troubled at times, but they are real, strong and meaningful to her. Her attraction to Mawu is especially beautifully written, at times with sweet hints of eroticism. Mawu herself, the novel's most vibrant character, lifts the book as much as she does the social life of the group of slaves, leavening their lives with her sharp tongue, her magical cooking, her unsubdued spirit. When Lizzie looks at her, she wonders if she has ever been beaten, because she holds herself so boldly, but it turns out that Mawu's life has been full of extreme suffering including many beatings. Three of her four children have been sold, only one boy has not, because a brain injury has made him less saleable. This reminded me of Kindred, in which the cook has only been able to keep one of her children, a deaf girl. Wench reminded me of My Brilliant Friend and Code Name Verity because of the shared strategy of having the viewpoint character admire a bolder friend. I appreciate this move, because it's much easier for me to relate to a fairly timid and ordinary person in awe of someone impressive and charismatic than to imagine myself into the shoes of such a fabulous person!

Two white women are important in Lizzie's life: Drayle's wife Fran, who is typical of master's wives in being neurotic, jealous and annoying, making Lizzie into 'a giant ear', attempting to sell her behind Drayle's back, making temporary pets of her children and generally being a royal pain in the ass, but there are moments when a flicker of empathy appears in her, such as when the trader gropes Lizzie in front of her and she 'looks nervously out of the window', and more decisively when she protects her from Drayle's attentions when she is sick The other woman is Glory, who lives near the resort and, opposed to slavery and racism, helps Lizzie and Mawu. The first thing she does is show Lizzie where to find some beautiful flowers. The description of these is truly beautiful, linking colours in nature to emphasise a relationship between aesthetic experience, connection to the land, and freedom.

Lizzie's deep friendship with Philip is a source of strength and support, and his narrative journey has heartening aspects. He falls in love with a freeman's daughter, and Perkins-Valdez uses his story to explore one of the ways a person might get out of slavery. She is very skilful in giving each character a distinct personality at the same time as she builds the ideas she wants to communicate into their stories – I feel the book has depth philosophically, intellectually and emotionally, written into the relationships and events at all levels, in beautiful, easily readable prose and a carefully structured plot. I'll read anything Perkins-Valdez writes.

My favourite thing of all is the regular supply of references to Africa, brought most palpably to the resort by Mawu who has rebelliously renamed herself, who carries things on her head 'the way they had in the old country' and learns spiritual knowledge and spells from 'an old conjuring man who lived back of the plantation'. Mawu's disdain for the religious beliefs of the other slaves makes this book more appealing to me personally than slavery stories where the protagonists find strength and solace in Christianity. As well as this window to an imaginary beyond the limits of Euro-American thought, (another, smaller, but no less real is in the name of the resort Tawawa, which Perkins-Valdez is careful to note is the 'Shawnee Indian word for “clear water”') there are other strands that offer hope, such as the neighbouring resort for free black people, which they are guided to by Glory (though she warns them against approaching too closely) and where Lizzie imagines her own daughter as a (care)free girl, and the hints that foreshadow the Civil War. Through all the pain, all the violation and outrage, there are whispers of better things on the way.
Profile Image for Jen.
247 reviews148 followers
October 22, 2012
-Edited 10/21/12-

If you are considering reading this book and are cruising 'round reviews, then consider reading

The Book of Night Women instead. It is infinitely better, although it will break your heart and stomp on the pieces.

*****original review*****

My thoughts: Should a writer take the most boring character and make her tell the story? Should I write that? Probably not. But, damn! I didn't want to hear any more about mealy-mouthed Lizzie. Give me Mawu, crazy assed Mawu, with the black skin and the violently red hair. Or tell me more about Reenie, born for suffering. And don't forget to fill me in more on Sweet, the woman who grieves by sewing day in and out. Just don't give me Elizabeth the unsure, the hesitant. Because I just didn't really care enough about her, even if she could read and endure. Give me a voice strong enough to burn the book down around my head.

But maybe it's my fault. And now, cue the spoiler alert!

My middle sister picked this book. She always picks tragic books. With children. But she's consistent. She liked this book okay, but she was most disturbed about I was most disturbed about But I'm funny that way.

Which leads me to my youngest sister, infrequent GRder, Jane Austen lover. She found many things in here disturbing. And she thought that I should have been a bit more gracious to the author; that the character chosen to carry the story along needn't be the strongest voice. But she is my younger sister, so I don't really think I have to agree with her. My years make me wiser. Or something.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 118 books157k followers
May 15, 2011
This is a good book but not a great book. The writing is not as strong as it could be. Slavery-related stories are difficult because there are just so many and at this point, when there are books as unique as, say, The Known World, any new entrants to the genre need to be exceptional to stand apart. What is exceptional about Wench is the story of slave women with their masters at a resort for the summer in a free state. That's a perfect site of narrative tension. The writing, however falters. Dialect is used inconsistently so it becomes a distraction. Certain characters are introduced but never fully developed. Ultimately, I feel like the ideas in this book demanded more than they received. One other thing this book does well, I will say, is to show just how heartbreaking and impossible the choices black women faced during slavery. This was... difficult to get through in terms of the more painful parts of the story.
Profile Image for Jamise.
Author 2 books154 followers
May 30, 2016
I've put off reading this book for such a long time because I just didn't want to read another slave story. But this is far more than the life of slave women in the 1800's. This is a story surrounding the power, strength & courage of four women; the safe haven found in true friendships and ties that bind the afflicted. Most of the story takes place in free Ohio at Tawawa Resort where slavemasters vacationed in the summer with their slave mistresses, leaving their wives behind at home. What I found painstakingly profound was that these women vacationed in a free state and boarded the coach back to their enslaved southern states each summer. The love for their families, children & other slaves back home surely outweighed their temptation for freedom just beyond the resorts boundaries. | "...perhaps whites did not understand how it felt not to be able to go where one wanted to go, dress how one wanted to dress. They took simple things like movement for granted." ~ Lizzie

Historical Fact: Tawawa Resort opened in 1852 and closed in 1855. The land and the surrounding area was sold to the Cincinnati Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church
and it established the Ohio African University in 1856. Enrollment declined with the onset of the Civil War and the original campus closed. In 1863, the property was purchased by the African Methodist Episcopal Church and was renamed Wilberforce University.
Profile Image for Cina.
61 reviews11 followers
July 3, 2016
I gave this book 2 stars because I am still waiting for a conclusion to this book. I kept reading hoping that the more I read the better it would get but that didn't happen. Some of the stories of the characters fell to the side or didn't develop fully, there was very little development and disheartening that the main character Lizzie/Eliza never really realized her worth as a woman in the story. To the bitter end, even knowing what being a slave vs a free black woman meant and who were her oppressors she still pined for the love of her master. That is how it came across to me, yes it was Stockholm syndrome to a degree. After being captive so long she started to feel a sense of sordid love for him, he chose her above everyone, he treated her right but did he really? There were moments of clarity when she could see that she was nothing more than a slave to him but they were blurred by false words of love. Ridiculous...every slave arrived to the point that they learned that they were nothing more than cattle and freedom was the ultimate goal not a life of servitude. Lizzie's inability to find freedom frustrated me, I wanted the character to develop so much but true to the title all she remained was a wench.

I would recommend this if only you want a quick read, briefly touches on the cruelties of slavery with the acts of a few bad masters, there is no real love in this novel, just a great sense of loss that could have been developed into a lot more.
Profile Image for Bob Schmitz.
619 reviews10 followers
January 30, 2012
I saw an article that Dolen Perkins-Valdez was speaking about her book here in Durham. I had never heard of her or her book but a book about a resort in Ohio where Southern men brought their slaves as escorts was an interesting topic so my wife and I joined 25 black people and 10 other whites in a local church to hear what she had to say.

Perkins-Valdez had been told by a writing teacher to look for materials in books in obituaries. She didn't like reading obits. She did however run across a footnote some where that mentioned Tawawa House, a resort in Southern Ohio, a free state, where Southern masters brought their slaves without their wives. More than cooking and mending went on. Fascinated she researched and found that it had existed and had failed prior to the Civil War because Northerners didn't like being around the Southern slave owners. It became a school and eventually Wilberforce College. None of the original building remain and the springs for which people came have dried up.

Perkins-Valdez was an engaging speaker. She mentioned that slavery had many secrets and that her (black) college roommate had only recently told her that she was descended from former president Andrew Johnson That fact had been hidden in the family handed down through the females but never made public because of the shame that incest was involved. With her research skills Dolen was able find that the Johnson ancestry was true and the incest was not. So many stories hidden away.

So now onto the book. It was interesting in that it portrayed some of the ambiguities of slavery. Other reasons besides fear could keep a slave woman from leaving her master. Perhaps affection? Perkins-Valdez is ambiguous on this point with her main character, Lizzie. That being said I did not find the book that engaging. One of the main things that bothered me is that many of the things she discribed did not ring true. For instance Lizzie several times confides in white people and suffers each time. I would think that even by the age of 13 she would know to hide her feelings. She refers to "driveways" A word that dates to 1865-70 10 years after the story. (http://dictionary.reference.com/brows... "chicken wire" that was invented after 1947 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_...)*** This just seemed sloppy writing and I felt the characters were developed in a sloppy way also.

I thought the topic was interesting but the book was not.

****Please read the comments of "Sue" below from 1/29/12 who points out some inconsistencies in my review and my response to her comments.
Profile Image for Tara.
Author 22 books543 followers
May 15, 2014
Not just another book retelling the horrors of slavery. Perkins-Valdez brings to life a little-known piece of history, and I'm so glad she did. If she hadn't, the fact that white slave owners not only kept black women as sex slaves, but elevated them in a way that sometimes surpassed the roles of their own white wives, and traveled with them on vacation to a place near Xenia, Ohio, would have disappeared into our tragic American history. The author worked hard to show the complexity of the relationships. No easy answers in this book, as the lead character, Lizzie, wonders if she loves her master, the same master who chains her to a porch then kisses her and calls her his darling, one of the most chilling scenes in the book for me. It's all there, the sick, power-driven intentions of the white male during southern slavery, in that simple scene. And the dignity of the women, both black and white, who bear their burden in different ways gets center stage in this gritty but thought-provoking novel.
Profile Image for Sheila.
Author 19 books43 followers
September 5, 2011
I enjoyed this book, but only up to a point. The subject matter was quite gripping, but I found it an "almost there" book rather than a completely satisfying read. I found the prose a bit "prosy"; flat and straightforward, and not always in a good way. The characters were interesting but did not quite come alive; even Lizzie, the main character, who was the most developed, somehow was not completely well-rounded. The biggest disappointment was the ending, because it made no sense to me. Many loose ends were left untied, and I had no idea what Lizzie was facing, or how her life would pan out, or, most importantly, what she was thinking when she made the choice she did. A sense of resolution was lacking. But I did find it an easy read and I liked learning about the lives of the slave women; the book includes details that bring their situation to life. However, there were instances where it did not ring true - why Lizzie loved her slave owner/lover, for instance. I'm absolutely sure this could have happened, even given that he did not treat her well, but what I found lacking was insight - Lizzie's insight into why she kept loving him, or loved him at all - plus scenes and descriptions vivid enough to make me see what the attraction was. In general this book, though good enough, seemed to remain on the surface of things, especially people's emotions.
Profile Image for Mari Anne.
1,337 reviews24 followers
March 31, 2011
I probably shouldn't have read this so close on the heels of "The Kitchen House". While this novel explores another interesting aspect of Southern antebellum slave life, it wasn't nearly as well done as "The Kitchen House". I am waffling between 2 and 3 stars for this one.

"Wench" explores the lives of four slaves who act as mistresses to their slave owners. They meet up four summers in a row at a Northern resort and the novel explores their lives and situations.

The basic storyline is very interesting, but the book is unevenly written. The author tends to jump around a lot in time and perspective and this uneveness somewhat spoiled the book for this reader. The strongest part of the book is definitely the section where the writer tells the story of Lizzie, the main character. This section is fascinating and very well done. The other characters are not written as well and their stories are somewhat lost in the shuffle.

I also hated the ending. It is really somewhat of a non-ending and is very awkward. The book really just kind of peters out more than ends.

Profile Image for Taryn.
1,206 reviews188 followers
September 30, 2015
We who have spent a February or two in America’s public schools know intellectually that slavery is terrible. We look back with dewy young eyes on the Civil War era and nod along as our teachers describe what the lives of slaves were like. We know the words of the story by heart, an oft-repeated refrain that grows comfortable in its familiarity. We are so comfortable with slavery as America’s legacy that we can no longer see it for what it was.

And what it was, was horror.

Wench made me feel that horror. It scrubbed away the anesthesia of a childhood full of whitewashed history lessons and brought me face to face with the wrenching complexities that constituted slave life. Your child is not your own. Your child can be taken from you, at any moment, with no explanation and no recourse. Your husband is not your own. He is not even your husband; he is your owner, and can do with you whatever he chooses, indulge any whim at any time. Your body, your life, are not your own. During the time I was listening to this book, I had to sit with those thoughts. Afterwards, I felt my skin had been scrubbed raw.

Perkins-Valdez takes us deep inside her characters. Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu are slave mistresses. They meet every summer at a resort in Ohio where their masters take them for some private time, away from judging eyes. Their position is an impossible one: they are in some ways favored—allowed to sleep in the house instead of the slave quarters, given better rations and clothing—but in others horribly exploited. The relationships share many dynamics of abusive marriages, with their constant ambivalence—the women never know whether they will be treated as human or chattel, and they can never trust their masters because the balance of power is always skewed.

And still, these women have to get up every morning and live their lives as best they can, inside the web of a waking nightmare that has trapped them like flies. Are you feeling the tension yet?

I love books that lift the veil from my eyes and allow me to see the world in a more honest way. Books that shock me awake like a bucket of cold water over my head. Books that tell me a story that in my jadedness I thought I’d already heard before. Wench does all of those things, and does it in lyrical, lovely prose, a stylistic choice which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

An emotionally challenging but necessary read. Book clubs, order another round of drinks, because your discussion will run overtime.

More book recommendations by me at www.readingwithhippos.com
Profile Image for Kathrina.
508 reviews127 followers
January 11, 2014
The historical authority necessary to write this novel was too much for this first-time author. There are various historical anachronisms that just rub wrong ("driveway", "chicken wire", growing soybeans in pre-Civil War Tennessee), but most importantly, the characters are flat, and our narrator's emotional terrain remains as elusive as it did in the first chapter. Perkins-Valdez admits to not knowing where her narrator was going as she began the novel, and I argue that she never did discover what she hoped her narrator would do. It felt more like layer upon layer of
slavery-is-bad, without any exploration of the emotional and authentic human experience. The topics referenced -- the relationship of slaveholders and their sexual concubines, the effect of slavery on all women, free and enslaved, white and black, the strong ties of motherhood and sisterhood -- all deserve a more sensitive touch. Using an interesting and unusual footnote as the basis of one's novel requires a clearer understanding of what made that footnote so unusual -- an 1850's Ohio resort that catered to slaveholders and their slave entourage. As a reader, I need to understand all kinds of new context -- what did Ohio feel like at that time, through the eyes of slaves and the free, what did a "vacation" feel like, why Ohio? I should have a better understanding now that I've read this, but I don't. This book was good at asking those questions, but not at answering them.
Profile Image for Rashida.
138 reviews14 followers
March 2, 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.
Profile Image for Erin.
2,956 reviews485 followers
October 28, 2018
As I am a Goodreads member, I have noticed that Wench seems to be a book that is buzzing especially among some of my favorite authors. I am glad that I took time to read it because once I started, it was impossible to put down!

Wench is the story of four slave women- Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu who vacation in the state of Ohio with their white masters. Say what? Nope, I am not crazy, There actually was a resort in the 1850's where white slave owners could bring their female slaves and they did it in full view of other white people. The author doesn't sugarcoat the trials of these four women as we are given their back stories mainly through the voice of Lizzie.

Now, I have noticed that there are lots of reviewers of the book that are more critical of the book because they are much more knowledgeable about slavery, existing laws, and the abolition movement. I cannot comment on that particularly but what I would say is that this story kept me turning the pages. I was caught up in the narrative and I wanted to see what was going to happen to these four women. That I feel is the endearing quality of the book- these four women and how they explore friendships, forbidden love, and a quest for freedom.
Profile Image for Steph's Romance Book Talk.
2,641 reviews1,264 followers
January 26, 2018
All I will say is this book reminded me why I do not read books about slavery and that timeframe. Although it was well written, the inhumanity of early United States is just not something that I choose to indulge in when reading books. I am under no misconceptions or denial that these things happened but I think they just hit to close to home in that if I was born during that time, these are the things that could be done to me.

This video review will be included in the January 2018 Wrap-up.

For other video book reviews check out my YouTube Channel: Steph's Rom Book Talk.
Profile Image for Melodie.
589 reviews64 followers
September 18, 2015
This was an ambitious debut work.The title alone was a punch to the gut. Slavery is a tough topic,one that is multi-layered and fraught with landmines with potential to offend.Wile I found her to be a little wordy,I found the author up to the task on the subject.
Four slave mistresses accompany their masters,leaving wives and children, to a resort in the free state of Ohio. There the men and their slave mistresses occupy little cottages around the property. This strange arrangement is an open secret among the patrons of the resort. But while the men hunt and loll about on vacation,their mistresses continue just as they would on the plantation,cleaning, cooking and being available for sex on demand.
The women are cautious with each other at first,but over time become friends and confide their individual stories.One woman has a dangerous and seeming impossible dream of freedom. But in this she stands alone.Over time though, each of the women come to covet that dream for themselves.
The reader is offered an insight into the hearts and minds of these women.There are many shades of gray in this story.One of the women struggles throughout the book because she has very real loving feelings toward her master/lover.But she sees him and their relationship clearly for what it is.Talk about conflict.As each of the women seek freedom, this woman is the last to come to terms with her dream of it and the reality of her situation.
I love historical fiction for the opportunity to learn and to challenge myself to think deeply on often uncomfortable topics.This one will stay with me for awhile.

Profile Image for Kimberly.
84 reviews2 followers
November 15, 2010
I loved this book! It offered a a refreshing take on a subject that slave owners and their "mistresses", although I use this word loosely because it implies that these women freely entered these relationships. I think with all the reviews of the book, it is not neccessary for me to recap what it is about. What I would like to say is that I loved how the author showed you four women in the same situation, and how each one of them viewed their situation differently. And how knowing one another changed their views of their lives.

The reason I was unable to give this book the full five stars is that I really wished that the author would have explored the circumstances of the other women, how their relationships developed with their masters in the same manner in which she did Lizzie. It would not have required much, a chapter for each just so we would know some sort of back story to how they found themselves in their current situation.

Besides that, I have no complaints about this book. I read it during one day of traveling and was left wanting more. I look forward to reading future works by this author.
Profile Image for Ashley .
167 reviews36 followers
July 30, 2018
This is a solid three stars. The book was neither bad nor good, just in-between. The story of Lizzie and her indecisiveness regarding the claiming of her freedom is a confusing one at times and full of questions and confusing bits. I think the author tried to tie too many strings together regarding slavery, the abuse of slave women, freedom, abolitionists, etc, it’s just a hodge-podge of ideas and thoughts with a story line that jumps back and forth through time. There were many parts that were hard to read regarding rape and violence, and in the end I didn’t feel satisfied, there’s just one big plot hole that leaves you standing at the edge of a ditch.
Profile Image for Irene.
108 reviews142 followers
April 21, 2015
Reviewed for Author Exposure: http://www.authorexposure.com/2011/04...

In 1852, as the blistering summer heat descends upon the South, numerous plantation owners abandon their dejected wives and depart with their preferred slave “mistresses” to vacation in the cooler climates across the river in Ohio. Among them is Nathan Drayle of Tennessee, who arrives with his slave horseman, Philip, and his slave “mistress”, Lizzie, the mother of his son and daughter. Despite Nathan’s calculated prepubescent seduction, Lizzie steadfastly believes he loves and respects her. In his cunning deceit to sexually claim her, he taught her to read by steadily luring her with little gifts of beautiful books which she, who owned nothing, treasured and kept secret.

“She was afraid of him, but with each reading lesson she allowed him to take one more step with her….At first, he asked to touch her. Later, he did not. Each touch was like a payment for his kindnesses…” (Page 92)

While the Southern men enjoy the numerous amenities of the grand hotel, Lizzie delightedly mingles with other cottage friends, Sweet, Reenie and Mawu. They are all abuzz about their year apart. With cautious restraint, they adhere to strict schedules and required duties while their masters are away; fully aware of what is expected upon their return.

Female friendship, with all its attendant characteristics, is an unfamiliar indulgence to Lizzie. Alliances first formed out of necessity, are now sought to share secrets, provide resilient support when necessary, and enhance the simple pleasures of laughter and companionship.

Lizzie, still in awe of the free-state resort, is also curious about another one beyond the thicket of trees where prosperous free black men and women vacation. The concept of such extravagance is foreign to all. Gradually, either by self admission or a master’s humiliation, the repugnant facets of each woman’s history is laid bare, and each contemplates the perilous attempt to escape the psychological and physical chains that bind them. Sweet’s tragic departure lies in a mournful direction. Reenie’s shocking disappearance reveals an unknown strength. Mawu’s unrestrained behavior leads to painful, but predictable consequences. Lizzie, finally able to dispel her previously idealistic certainties about Nathan, chooses a singular approach. Nathan assures her that their son will receive an education, but emphatically denies a similar future for their daughter.

“…she thought of Rabbit and what she would teach her…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…Hold fast to your women friends because they are going to be there when ain’t nobody else there…Never forget your name…Don’t be afraid to say how you feel. Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts…” (Pages 287-288)

“…All these years, she realized, she had been putting her faith in Drayle to free her children. Now she had to put her faith in herself…Each and every day, she reminded herself of this so that she wouldn’t fall backward. She was more than eyes, ears, lips, and thigh. She was a heart. She was a mind.” (Page 290)

Wench is compellingly distinctive in its candid approach to the mystifying and intimidating manipulation within the theoretically clandestine relationship between Southern masters and their preferred female slaves. Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ ingenious debut paints a fascinating portrait of the delicate balance which shapes their unpredictable lives and, despite their seemingly lofty position, accentuates the constant fear of dire consequences of any errant word or inadvertent action deemed inappropriate or duplicitous. Utilizing flashback sequences without sycophantic sentimentality, she unflinchingly depicts a vividly detailed narrative about four enslaved women’s lives shackled to their masters’ erratic whims.

While reading the book, there is an indefinable fleeting sensation that this author is personally familiar with each life-altering event and, as an observant eyewitness, chronicles a truthful rendering with unwavering scrutiny. Wench immediately captures you, and long after you finish, you will not fail to remember Lizzie, Sweet, Reenie, and Mawu; resilient, steadfast and courageous.
Profile Image for The Captain.
1,073 reviews373 followers
January 29, 2022
Ahoy there me mateys!  For those of ye who are new to me log, a word: though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes.  Occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were.  Today I bring ye a historical fiction.  This book was part of the booty haul of 2016 and it was exciting to read another book off that list.

This novel is set in Ohio before the U.S. Civil War and takes place at Tawawa House, a summer resort ( that actually existed ).  It is a complicated place because though the area had anti-slavery sentiment, the retreat is known to be a place where Southern slaveholders can bring their black slave mistresses and leave the wives behind.  This juxtaposition of the free blacks and slaves at a resort is what lead me to pick up the book.

The book portrays four slave women who come to the resort every year.  Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet are friends tied together by their circumstances.  While they have varying relationships with their owners, they look forward to the trip to see each other and have some autonomy over their days when the men are out hunting or camping.  Their dynamic changes when Mawu arrives.

Mawu is not complacent and has high self-esteem despite her situation.  She brings new ideas to the other women and is especially keen on the idea of running.  Lizzie and Sweet have children back home and don't want to leave them.  And Mawu seems likely to get them all in trouble.

This book is full of complicated relationships and emotions.  I grew to really care about the four women.  While I am glad I read this book, I cannot say that it was enjoyable.  Reading about slavery, subjugation of the female body, etc. is uncomfortable at best and horrifying at many, many points of the novel.  And learning at the end of the book that this specific place did in fact exist was even more heart wrenching.  The small highlight was the resort was a real part of the underground railroad and the property was purchased in 1856 and turned into Wilberforce University, the nation's oldest private historically African American institution of higher education.  I also appreciated learning about the lives of free blacks in the area though it is not the focus.

This book is recommended if the reader can stomach the subject matter.  The novel really does show the complexities and evil of slavery through the lens of slave women who have strength and intelligence.  I am also glad the book led me to explore the history of yet another hidden element of the story of slavery in the U.S.  Letting those truths not be forgotten is worthwhile.  Arrr!
Profile Image for Monique.
995 reviews60 followers
February 17, 2013
Okay so I must admit with the replaying of Roots: An American Family Saga over the holidays and I dont know my recent fascination with the Civil war and slavery I put this book on hold at a neighboring library and picked it up willingly..I found the premise hands down just so interesting with one of the most intriguing leads ever promoting the story of a resort hotel in the free state of Ohio where Southern slaveowners would leave their strenous (bah) life of running a plantation and using and abusing human beings for profit and travel for unabashed male time and privacy with their slave mistresses..the book's heroines the four Negro wenches Lizzie, Sweet, Reenie and Mawu. This is a brilliant retelling of slave women with no possessions of their own not even time their own thoughts or desires, it was heartbreaking to read the stories of the women in different relationships with the men who own them..Understandably all women harbor the resentment and anger of being a slave and not a willing participant to the "nighttime activities" of the masters but what if somewhere a bit of tenderness grows as in Lizzie's situation where she truly felt that though she was lowly and poor that her master really loved her and offered her kindness when he could though he refused to free her or the children they created together. Lizzie's precarious situation offered just one scenario as you also meet Sweet, a woman whose master obviously adored her and to whom she bore five children for, she seems not as enamored as Lizzie but still has the compassion and at least a form of like for her master while Reenie and Mawu both despise their status, their captors and share the horrific stories of why..With the women in a free state the temptation to escape dances through their head multiple times and for different reasons each must decide if they are strong enough to head on to freedom..I appreciate the realness of the story as they talked about everything dirty, uncomfortable and impossibly sad about the plight of a slave woman..How must it be to not be able to read, not be in charge of your own body, your own mind, your own day, your clothes and in some cases your heart as the women clung to their lives out of love of their children..I had so many feelings as I read and it would have been a five star book if the ending and characters were expounded upon a bit more..I do recommend this book as an eyeopener and a tool to make you think and show you the obstacles we overcame to be so strong..Another great fact you find out about this book is that the resort once used for illicit activites by Southern slaveowners in need of a vacation was taken over by missionaries to be a school to educate free coloreds and this place is still in existence today as Oberlin College..that alone was worth a star and worth recommending.. :)
Profile Image for Adam.
291 reviews7 followers
March 21, 2011
"Show, don't tell" is one of the key principles of good writing. Dolen Perkins-Valdez doesn't appear to have learned this.

Let me offer an example with a single sentence from Chapter 32:
"Even before the words that followed, the words that would deliver Mawu's message, Lizzie knew something was wrong."

That's padding, folks. Eighteen words doing the work of five. "Lizzie knew something was wrong" alone would have conveyed everything.

Some of the historical details are also suspect. Drayle, Lizzie's master and lover, is said to have made his plantation profitable with cotton and soybeans. Soybeans in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1840s? I'm no agricultural historian, but I don't think soybeans were raised in any significant numbers in the U.S. until the 20th century, and I'm almost certain they wouldn't have been a cash crop for an antebellum plantation.

The characters, too, lack depth. A great writer can make you inhabit a character's life no matter how far removed from your own experience it may be. But even by the end of the book I felt no closer to understanding how Lizzie feels or why she acts the way she does, much less what's going on in the minds and hearts of any of the other characters.

Yet, despite these significant flaws, the edition I've just read opens with 3 1/2 pages of praise from various reviewers, and I see more than a few four- or five-star reviews here on Goodreads. This could be puzzling, but I have a theory: Dolen Perkins-Valdez has plucked one of the low-hanging fruits of the current literary climate.

What I mean is that there are certain subjects so imbued with drama, emotion and philosophical challenges to a reader that a writer doesn't have to bother with setting up those vital elements of a good story. Slave narratives fall into this category, as does any story about the Holocaust or a struggle with sexual identity. Not to say that these subjects can't inspire wonderful and brilliant novels and works of nonfiction. They can and they have. And the basic elements of "Wench" should have set it up to take a spot among the canon of great works on such subjects. It could have been brilliant and engaging, easily a Pulitzer contender. Instead it reads like a pulp historical romance.

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