Sunday 8 September 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez (2010)

Content warning: sexual assault; abortion

Reading novels about slavery in the nineteenth-century American South can be a gruelling experience, but Dolen Perkins-Valdez hits all the right notes in her 2010 Wench—the story of four enslaved black women who accompany their Southern masters to an Ohio vacation resort in the 1850s.

Lizzie, our protagonist, feels she loves her master, Drayle. He’s the father of her two children and he’s taught her to read and write, as well as giving her a better quality of life than that of the field slaves. But it seems unlikely that he’ll free her, or his children, and Lizzie is struggling with her own desire for independence and autonomy.

The other three women have their own battles to contend with. Mawu wants her master dead. Sweet’s pregnant—again. And Reenie’s master (who’s also her half-brother) is ‘sharing’ her with the owner of the Tawawa House resort.

With whispers of the abolition movement reaching the women, and salvation tantalisingly close in free Ohio, all four must decide whether and how to take control of their lives and what they’d risk or give up to taste freedom.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Perkins-Valdez does a wonderful job of teasing out the nuanced reactions to slavery from all her characters—free and enslaved, white and black. Drayle’s wife Fran is a particularly complex supporting character, reminding me of Valerie Martin’s 2003 Property, which I reviewed previously. But the four women described as their masters’ ‘wenches’ are the focus, with Lizzie’s personal emotional arc at the heart of the novel.

Some moments are difficult to read. There are descriptions of multiple sexual assaults, including one instance of rape while a character is still bleeding from terminating a pregnancy. And, while the physical violence isn’t as constant as in some depictions of slavery based largely on plantations (e.g. Twelve Years a Slave), there are several scenes of corporal punishment that aren’t for the faint-hearted.

The relationships between the women—tender and multi-faceted—though are what kept me reading (at speed). They’re believable and oh so human, even providing moments of levity and joy in this unflinching depiction of a dark and dangerous time.

What novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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