Usually I only do book reviews over at Fierce and Nerdy, but this is written by a fellow chickadee of my editor, so here are my thoughts on WENCH by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Why I Decided To Read It: About a month ago, Dawn Davis, my editor at HarperCollins/Amistad told me that she was really excited about this winter release, and then it seemed like I was hearing about it everywhere. So it made my must-read list.
What’s It About: It’s a fictional story set at a real resort in pre-Civil War Ohio, where white slave owners used to take their black slave mistresses for summer vacay. The book centers on one slave in particular named Lizzie (the optimistic one), and the three other slave women that she befriends at the resort: Mawu (the sassy one), Reenie (the serious one), and Sweet (the sweet one). It’s a bit like Slave and the City — except technically its set in the country.
What Makes It Different: I have read many a slave story, but I have never read anything quite like this. The main character, a dark-skinned slave named Lizzie, who loves her master, and has two children waiting back home for her somehow reminded me of modern day women stuck in toxic relationships. It made the novel seem less removed from present day than any other novel I’ve ever read that was set in the this time period.
What I Loved: First of all, the book is beautifully written. Also, it didn’t feel like a history lesson or a list of awful situations. I adored the complicated relationship between the women and the way Perkins-Valdez navigated race, class, love, fear, and motherhood. Basically motherhood in this book is both a saving grace (it keeps the women human despite their circumstances) and a burden (though they are in a free state, the decision about whether to run or not is more than tough, b/c they have children back at their Southern plantations). And in many ways WENCH works as a suspense, because you wonder who will escape, who will die, and who will stay put. The answers to these questions surprised me and I did not see the ending coming.
Writing Lessons Learned:
Use research subtlety. I‘ve become used to writers peacocking their research, describing every single historical event and place in almost ridiculous detail. However, you wouldn’t know that this book was researched within an inch of its life, because everything is presented organically. For instance Mawu and Lizzie bond over a certain dish that would only be cooked that way by slaves in their situation, and it doesn’t feel like the author is saying, “Hey look at my research!” It’s more like it’s just happening. The historical touches in this book are wonderfully executed.
Same situation, different responses. It’s interesting, b/c all four women are in variants of the same situation at the resort, but their personalities and circumstances lend towards making their stories very individual.
Use the wardrobe. Now I tend to overthink wardrobe, just because I grew up on Ladies Home Journal’s “Can This Marriage Be Saved,” so my default is to over describe what a character is wearing. But oh man did Perkins-Valdez use clothes well in this novel. I don’t want to ruin anything for you, but there’s a brilliant throughline with fancy dresses and there’s also a series of clothing scenes that will break your heart. It made me remember that clothes can be used for something other than shopping-p*rn and representing characters’ aesthetic values. So instead of wearing a sweater I got from Urban Outfitters while I’m typing this, I’m wearing a sweater that I bought with money I didn’t really have from the clearance rack of Urban Outfitters back in 2004, six months after I moved to LA, b/c I was sick of being cold at my dead-end office job. Much better, right!
To Whom Would I Recommend This Book: Historians, Mistresses, Recent Divorcees, History Buffs, Civil War Re-enacters, African-American History Majors, Ohioans, and High Schoolers Who Want To Enjoy What Their Reading For Black History Month
TEN PEOPLE WHO WANT TO READ THIS YESTERDAY: Angela G, Kemi I, Katrina G, Liz C, Tamara L, Shewanee H, Millie M, Gina K, Howard L, and my dear departed Senior English teacher, Mrs. Doyle — man, she would have loved this book.
Click on the cover pic to buy the book.