Book Review: Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s “Wench” **spoiler alert**

Wench is a book that explores the interconnected stories of four slave women in the late 1840s, early 1850s.  They meet in a unique setting- the Fugitive Slave Act has just been passed and their masters bring them up for a summer retreat to Tawawa house, near Dayton, Ohio.

This is Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s first book and it is a masterpiece. Overall, this book is beautifully written. I loved every minute of it! I was standing on the bus stop reading it with rapt attention and highlighting it like a graduate student. I give it 5 stars out of 5.

I want to thank Evelyn N. Alfred for sending me this (signed!!) copy of “Wench.” By the way, y’all should check out her blog. I highly recommend it!

(By the way, you can find me on GoodReads ;-) )

Feeling Human: A Slave on Free Soil

What jumped out at me initially was the line between property and humanity.  In Lizzie, we see the struggle as she occupies a doubly subordinate position as a slave and a woman.:

[Drayle] “I have told you time and time again to watch your mouth when you are talking to me. You are just a women and, on top of that, nothing but a slave woman.” (215)

During her first summer at Tawawa house, a resort frequented by slaveowners and their “wenches,” Lizzie feels human. (18)  Walking around the cottage with her back straight, eyes forward, tongue poised for conversation- not the downward mumbling of slaves in the presence of their masters and mistresses. However, she is shaken out of this illusion after witnessing Mawu’s master (Tip) beat her and rape her.

Lizzie tried the stop the pain in her head.  The resort had lulled her into feeling human again. Had she glanced around at the others, she would know it had done the same to them. They had forgotten to protect themselves. (68)

Slavery and Sexual/Bodily Agency

There was also a recurrent theme of slavery and sexual agency.  Mawu illustrates this when she explains that she does not love Tip, the man who owned her.

[Mawu] „I ain‘t ever loved Tip.“
Lizzie nodded.  Reenie and Sweet had said just about the same thing.
„So why are you with him?“
Mawu looked at her as if she were plain stupid. „‘Cause I belongs to him.“ (16)

Later in the story, we see Reenie and Lizzie “take back their bodies.” While negotiating for Phillip’s freedom, Lizzie refuses Drayle for several nights (203).  Reenie, whose master “gave” her to the hotel manager as a sexual object, reclaims her body and declares that she will no longer be spending nights with him (225).

Perhaps the strongest example of bodily and sexual agency is Mawu. She uses her powers as a conjure woman to prevent the conception of any more children.

She asked them: How can you stand being a slave? Don’t you want to claim that arm? That leg? That breast? She declared that no one would suckle her titty again–man or child. (42)

Casual Violence in the ‘Peculiar Institution’

What struck me about this story was the almost matter-of-fact treatment of violence in this book.  The enslaved women and girls in this story are vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual violence at the hands of white men and women.  Lizzie is subjected to Mistress Fran’s constant and painful pinches when she is first discovered to be pregnant with Drayle’s child (104-5).

The pinches were hard enough to bruise. Fran did it secretly–in the kitchen, on the stairs, in the hallway, in the yard. She searched for new places, beginning with Lizzie’s cheek. Then an arm. Thigh. Side. Shoulder. She seemed to relish discovering each new point of hurt. Sometimes Lizzie caughtthe woman examining her body, as if searching for a new place.” (104)

Fran, a woman from a wealthy family in the South, married Nathan Drayle, hoping to bear grandchildren for her parents.  Lizzie carrying Nathan’s child suggests that the lack of children is due to Fran’s barrenness. Later on in the story, we see that Fran claimed Lizzie’s children (Nate and Rabbit) as her own, dressing them up like dolls, preening them like pets and later casting them aside when her nephew came to visit (129-146).

Mawu’s story is also one filled with violence. Tip favors her precisely because she puts up a fight. She was the only one of the slave women in the quarters who did not see a sexual relationship (if that) with the master as inevitable. So, in contrast to Lizzie’s story, Mawu’s initiation was violent and abrupt. Following her first failed escape attempt, Mawu is subjected to a very painful and public humiliation- turned into an object lesson for the other slaves- by Tip (67-8).

Kinship & Sisterhood

Another striking theme in the book was the strength of the bonds forged between Sweet, Reenie, Mawu and Lizzie.  When Sweet gives birth, the theme of “women’s time” is brought up:

Despite the doctor’s intrusion, Sweet’s labor had been women’s time. And cleaning, yet another form of labor, was also women’s time. (81)

The theme of “women’s time” is carried over to the deaths and burials of Sweet’s four children (189-92) and her eventual death (205-7).

The enduring bonds of sisterhood outlast betrayals, disappointments, and year-long separations. The bond between Mawu and Lizzie was especially astounding to me. They were kindred-sistren, connected in spirit in spite of their differences. The last chapter explains the significance of Mawu’s name and why Mawu felt so strongly that Lizzie was her “other half.”

Themes and Motifs:

  • Feeling human (18)(68)
  • Being a slave in free territory (37) „Us on free land now. This here is free land.  Folks die trying to cross that river and here us done crossed it.“ (Mawu) (51) Fugitive Slave Law, Dayton (196-203)
  • one-eyed horse a.k.a. „Mr Goodfellow“ (50, 105-7, 151)
  • Hierarchies among slaves [House Slave, Quarters, etc] (105)
  • „training“ children to be slaves (146, 151)
  • Mistresses‘ casual violence toward female slaves (104-5, 172, 271)
  • Slavery + Affection in Marriage (125)
  • Beauty = whiteness (95-6, 172-174)
  • Slave women‘s fears (loss of children through sale (185) or death (186, 189-191, 205-7)
  • Women‘s Time (birth (81), death and grief (189-191, 205-7) )
  • Sex as currency ( Lizzie refuses Drayle, 203) (Reenie refuses the hotel manager 223, 225 „taken back her body“)
  • „Is he God to you?“ (180, 229)
  • FAMILIES (35)
  • PROPERTY (Drayle refers to Lizzie as „this one“ (99), Tip „defends“ Reenie (53), Drayle „protects“ Lizzie ( ), Sweet‘s master sees her baby as newly acquired property (73), „my Lizzie“ (267)
  • colorism (10)
  • FIRE (230-4)
  • Self-love (58, 253, 286, 290)


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