I love coming across a new author and a first novel. According to her website, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Story Quarterly, Story South, and elsewhere. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. She received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her forthcoming second novel, Balm. Dolen teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine. She is a graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA. She is a popular guest for Black History and Women's Month programs. Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family. Wench is an absorbing, heart rending story of a group of women slaves in the middle of the 19th century.
I have read a number of African-American novels in my time. Among these are Beloved (and others) by Toni Morrison, Eva’s Man by Gayle Jones, and of course, the novels of Zora Neale Hurston. While they all contained horrific accounts of African-Americans, and all were compelling and well-written, none had the lyric beauty of Dolen’s prose. The novel has a number of pastoral scenes frequently interrupted by the horrors of slavery.
The novel centers around four slaves, Sweet, Lizzie, Reenie, and Mawu. All are owned by men with a varying degree of concern for their slaves. Lizzie was the mistress of Drayle, who treated her better than most slave owners, but, nevertheless he was not above slapping or raping her. She knew early on Drayle’s wife was unable to conceive, and so after Lizzie twice became pregnant, her focus shifted to her son Nate and her daughter Rabbit in hopes of earning their freedom.
Perkins-Valdez writes, “The slaves had been back at Tawawa house for only a short time before Mawu was spotted sweeping her cottage porch as if she’d never left. As they passed one another, they gave the silent signal to meet at the stables that night: eye contact, a glance in the direction of the stables, and brushed fingertips down the forearm to signal dusk” (34). These women were resourceful.
As the women became acquainted with Mawu, she told her story. Dolen writes, “Mamu told them she was telling her story so they would know why she couldn’t go back to Louisiana, why she didn’t feel the same pull they felt toward their children. She didn’t live in the big house like Lizzie. Her children did not have special favors like Sweet’s. She hadn’t had a cabin built for her like Reenie. She was just a slave like any other – beaten, used, and made to feel no different than a cow or a goat or a chicken” (42). Later in the novel, Wamu was whipped into unconsciousness because her owner, Tip, heard she was thinking about running away.
Because of her special “relationship” with Drayle, Lizzie was taught to read. Perkins-Valdez writes, “As Lizzie learned the meaning s of new words and what the letters looked like on the page, it became more difficult to hide the fact she could read. She wanted to read everything. She scanned the spines of books along the shelves in Drayle’s library. She looked over [Mistress] Fran’s shoulder as she cleaned around her, straining to make out the handwriting of Fran’s mother. She wanted to read to the slaves in the cabins. There was only one man among them who could read the newspaper, and Lizzie thought she might be able to read as well as he could. She wanted to show him up, prove that women could learn, have everyone’s eyes hungry for her mouth to open and turn the piece of pulp in her hands into hope” (94-95). Despite living under the most extremely horrific circumstances, the thirst to learn burned in Lizzie’s heart.
Time and again, when things seemed hopeless, and one of the women said they needed the help of a man, “No. […] Us can do this our own selves” (187). Near the end of the novel, Lizzie thinks about her daughter. Dolen writes, “As she leaned against the porch post, she thought of Rabbit and what she would teach her. This was what she would say: Don’t give in to the white man. And if you have to give in, don’t give your soul over to him. Love yourself first. Fix it so you don’t give him children. If you ever make it to freedom, remember your mammy who tried to be good to you. Hold fast to your women friends because they are going to be there when ain’t nobody else there. If you don’t believe in God, it’s all right. God believes in you. Never forget your name. Keep track of your years and how old you are. Don’t be afraid to say how you feel. Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts” (287-288). I find it difficult to imagine a mother having to give her daughter advice like this. It reminds me of the mothers in Ferguson, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities where woman have to teach their children to fear the police and how to act if stopped. This passage brought tears to my eyes.
The strength, courage, intelligence, and persistence of these four women was heart-warming, and, sometimes, horrific. But against overwhelming odds, these woman managed to maintain their dignity and raise children, all the while under the constant threat of the whip. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a tremendously inspiring story. While not sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, it demonstrated how – under incredibly difficult circumstances – they were able to maintain a sense of decency to pass onto their children. 5 stars