Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Monday, February 15, 2010

Dolen Perkins-Valdez's Wench is a heartwrenching debut

Lizzie,Reenie and Sweet have been meeting for summer vacation at Tawawa House for quite a few years,accompanying their men to this resort out in Ohio during the 1850s as a retreat from their day-to-day lives at their Southern homes. However,this is no pleasure trip;all three ladies are slaves and not so secret mistresses of their male companions ,who take advantage of the time away and the seclusion of Tawawa House to be with them openly.

All of them support each other emotionally,bound by their sadly common link but one summer a newcomer arrives into their midst to shake things up. Her name is Mawu and she is not only defiant about her enforced sexual servitude to Tip,the crude man who owns her,but is determined to use this opportunity in free territory to find a way to escape from slavery altogether.

The others are tempted to join her,but are hesitate for numerous reason like Lizzie who hopes that her children fathered by Drayle, her married master, may be set free one day if she stays compliant to him. Mawu makes her attempts anyway and pays a harsh price in pain and humiliation in front of them all:

Even with such harsh examples of what might happen if they are caught,Reenie and Sweet become more invested in the idea of fleeing to freedom. Lizzie soon enough joins them in spirit if not action.

She does have strong affectionate feelings for Drayle,who taught her to read,but growing concerns about her children's future,especially when they are made emotional pawns in control games played by both Drayle and his childless wife. As tragic events mount up all around her,Lizzie must decide when and how she should make her stand.

Wench is Dolen Perkins-Valdez's first novel and while it has a slow start,the narrative quickly gains momentum mainly due to focusing on Lizzie's inner struggles. Perkins-Valdez clearly did some great research that adds to her moving impressionist portrait of enslaved women that many through out history pointedly chose to ignore,preferring to sweep their suffering under the rug.

The author does more than just thrust her based on history fictional heroines out into the spotlight;she gradually fleshes out their characters and reveals their divided loyalties towards their mutual situation and each other. She creates vivid voices of women on both sides of the racial divide during that time period whose turmoil over their cruel and thoughtless treatment by many of the men in their lives resounds loudly today.

Wench is a stunning original book,one that will no doubt entice the reading group circuit but also introduces us to a fabulous new writer,previously known for her short stories,who I hope we will hear more from in the future. Dolen Perkins-Valdez has a lovely way with words that bring beautiful yet sad visions of a world thankfully gone by yet should be remembered to life within the reader's imagination.

While this novel does hold up some ugly truths to the light of day,it also showcases the beauty of hope and the glory of women reaching to reclaim their power over their bodies and lives,regardless of what will come their way. Wench takes a hard road but it's definitely one worth traveling:

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