Thursday, July 14, 2011


I am always overwhelmed by the role that Ohio played in the history
 of slavery. The Margaret Garner story and factual information about a resort
near Xenia that Dolen Perkins-Valdez fictionalized in "Wench" are just two instances.

In the Author Interview at the end of her debut novel Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez explains what inspired her to write the book:

I was reading a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and, during a section about his tenure at Wilberforce University, came across a stunning line about the existence of a summer resort in Ohio that was popular among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I could not get this idea out of my head. I had so many questions...

Unable to find answers or any records of the slave women who "vacationed" at the resort, Perkins-Valdez instead turned to fiction. The result was absolutely captivating. I could not put this novel down. Like the author, I was fascinated by the idea of a resort where slaveholders took their concubines. It seemed such a contradictory concept; I often had trouble wrapping my mind around it as I read.

Then Perkins-Valdez took it a step further: one of the slave women, Lizzie, is in love with her master, and cherishes these trips with him. I almost couldn't fathom it -- except that I could. It reminded me of so many women that passed through the domestic violence shelters where I worked. Those who don't understand the cycle of violence and all the intricacies of abusive relationships often throw up their hands and wonder why battered women don't just leave. They see it as a simple solution to a very complex situation. I saw that parallel in Wench.

In fact, the dilemma of whether or not Lizzie will escape her situation is one of the themes in the book. She is brought to Ohio, a free state, and is allowed liberties that give her the chance to make an escape attempt. But again, like the women I've encountered in the shelters, her love for her abuser/master cannot be so easily overlooked. Nor her fear of the unknown and the risks involved. Plus, they have children together; children she is hoping that he will free rather than keeping as the slaves they are raised to be.

I am not minimizing the atrocity of slavery. I know that there was no choice in the matter. Likewise, I am not saying battered women are slaves. I just simply saw these parallels in the dynamics of Lizzie's relationship with her master, Drayle.

I won't delve into the triangular relationship that Lizzie and Drayle's relationship caused with his wife, Fran. But that was equally confounding with its many gray areas. The author did a fantastic job with Fran's character.

The novel was absolutely riveting, not just because the storyline and writing were top notch, but because it was based on that scrap of fact that Perkins-Valdez could not let go. There was an actual resort near Xenia, Ohio. Slaveowners and their mistresses did travel there. So little was documented about it that we can't ever know what it was like for those slaves ("wenches") that were brought there. But I am satisfied with the picture Perkins-Valdez paints. As unimaginable as it seemed, her portrayal of it was real enough for me.

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