Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Review - "Wench" by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

This is a powerful book. It reads quick, but it leaves you thinking long after you've closed the cover. It presents a view of slavery from the perspective of the slaves. Each one wrestles with the idea of freedom: What does freedom mean exactly? Can it take different forms? How can one choose freedom and yet leave behind loved ones still in bondage?

Three women--Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet--are meeting each other for the second time as their white masters have brought them to a summer resort in Ohio. Ohio is in Northern territory and therefore freedom is closer than ever for the women. The issue comes to the forefront as newcomer Mawu, another slave women, arrives and starts asking questions and planning her escape. A couple of slave men are also in the group, but Lizzie quickly comes forth as the main character. She's tempted by Mawu's words, but she feels strong loyalty to her master, Drayle. She's borne him two children and lives in his house. She believes they love each other, and though she doesn't like being a slave, her life is easier than that of many others. She can't quite bring herself to turn her back on him and on her children, even if she herself can gain freedom. Her struggles, her thoughts, and feelings, her indecisions are presented in the book. And when circumstances force her to choose, she thinks once again of her children.

The author does a good job of demonstrating the nuances of various situations of slavery. Philip, also belonging to Master Drayle, has a permanent pass to ride the horses off the plantation as he's in charge of their care. He also comes to Ohio, where he falls in love with a free black woman. How far will he go to be with her? Mawu, Sweet, and Reenie also have children, though Reenie's had been sold off and Mawu doesn't claim hers nearly as deeply as Lizzie does. Mawu can't wait to get away, Sweet and Reenie aren't so sure, and Lizzie has mixed feelings. Things are complicated for her because Drayle acknowledges her children as his, but he also treats them as property. She can't understand why he won't free them even though he's willing to let them live in his house and learn to read and write. Ultimately Lizzie has to find a strength within herself that will allow her to transcend her bondage mentally and emotionally, even as her physical body remains in slavery.

Slavery may seem like a black and white issue, and certainly it is and always was wrong for one group of people to keep another group of people in chains. However, take a step closer and get inside the "peculiar institution," where you will see shades of freedom and bondage. This story takes place in the decade before the Civil War, but what if Emancipation had occurred while Lizzie and her friends were in Ohio? What if they all had been freed, or what if she had escaped? Are the ties of blood and family stronger than personal freedom? How does one choose? Even the few white Northerners in the book have choices. Glory, a woman living near the resort, seems to be willing to help the slaves run away, but certainly there are other whites who are just as happy to catch slaves and return them to their masters for a price. Slavery and freedom then become moral issues and not just legal ones.

For a first novel, this one is excellent. Pick it up when you have a few days to ruminate on its implications. Even if you're not a fan of historical fiction or if you don't think you know much about the Civil War, that won't matter because the questions raised are timeless. Definitely give this a read.

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