Wench takes the reader back in time, to the United States in the mid-1850’s, and follows four slave women as they vacation with their masters in the free state of Ohio. Over the course of three summers, we get to know Lizzie, Sweet, Mawu, and Reenie, as they explore what it means to be a slave mistress in a free state, and the possibilities that are at the tips of their fingers in Ohio. While all four of these women figure prominently into this story, Lizzie’s narrative dominates the novel as there is an extended flashback through the middle of the book, providing insight into Lizzie’s life and perspective. The end of the novel focuses on their last summer together, and the decision they each have been presented with – run and try to gain freedom, or stay with their masters and be enslaved forever?
Wench is unlike any book I’ve read in recent memory. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, pretty aware of history, and yet the events in the book still surprised me. I know about slavery, I’ve read about it, watched movies, researched, etc., and yet Dolen-Perkins still managed to shock me with some of the horrible things the women in this novel had to deal with, simply because of their skin color. What the novel really showed me, even though intellectually I already knew this, is how little control these slave women had over anything in their lives. They had not an ounce of choice in who they had sex with (or, more commonly, who they were raped by), what they ate, what they wore, when they went to sleep, and worst of all – the fate of their children. These women were not able to perform the most basic job of motherhood: to protect their own children from abuse, rape, torture and being removed from the family at incredibly young ages. The shame a mother must feel from not being able to save her children from this horrible excuse for a life… well, it just breaks my heart to even imagine such a thing.
I absolutely fell in love with the characters in this novel. Lizzie was the most prominent of the story, and probably because of that, her story touched me the most. She legitimately felt that she was in love with her master, and he with her. They had created two children together, and even though he “loved” her, he wouldn’t free his own children from slavery. Lizzie was a very headstrong and determined character, and even though I couldn’t understand how she could love someone who treated her so horrifically, it made sense given the context of her life. Her master had chosen her, out of all the slave girls, to fall in love with and have kids with. So I can see why she would think he was her chance, and her children’s chance, for a better life. It was heartbreaking to read how she would try, over and over again, to get her children freed, to no avail. I admired her perseverance and devotion to her children, even in the face of so much that she was up against.
The story of Wench helped me to realize that we must NEVER forget the mistakes of our past. Even though slavery has been technically illegal for over a hundred years, the effects of that horrible institution continue today. We still see racism and prejudice in this country, and reading Wench reminded me of where those attitudes originally stemmed from. This novel touched me deeply and honestly brought history to life in my mind. Having finished Wench, I feel like I know these characters, like they are part of my own history, and that I understand that part of our country’s history just a bit more than I did before.
A must-read, absolutely, positively. If you enjoy being emotionally stirred by books (and who doesn’t?), you must pick up Wench.