Navigating through life away from the library.
Navigating through life away from the library.

Book Review: Wench: A Novel by Dolen Perkins~Valdez

Wench: A Novel by Dolen Perkins~ValdezBOOK DESCRIPTION

Tawawa House in many respects is like any other American resort before the Civil War.  Situated in Ohio, this idyllic retreat is particularly nice in the summer when the Southern humidity is too much to bear.  The main building, with its luxurious finishes, is loftier than the white cottages that flank it, but then again, the smaller structures are better positioned to catch any breeze that may come off the pond.  And they provide more privacy, which best suits the needs of the Southern white men who vacation there every summer with their black, enslaved mistresses. It’s their open secret.

Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet are regulars at Tawawa House.  They have become friends over the years as they reunite and share developments in their own lives and on their respective plantations.  They don’t bother too much with questions of freedom, though the resort is situated in free territory ~ but when truth~telling Mawu comes to the resort and starts talking of running away, things change.

To run is to leave behind everything these women value most ~ friends and families still down South ~ and for some it also means escaping from the emotional and psychological bonds that bind them to their masters.  When a fire on the resort sets off a string of tragedies, the women of Tawawa House soon learn that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the most inhuman, brutal of circumstances ~ all while they are bearing witness to the end of an era.

An engaging, page~turning, and wholly original novel, Wench explores, with an unflinching eye, the moral complexities of slavery.


It took me a little while to really get into this book, in fact, it took me about a month to read it but once I got into it, it was hard for me to put it down.  This novel has so many different themes:

  • the inhumanity of slavery
  • maternity and the sacrifices women make for their children
  • race relations
  • the importance of education
  • friendships between women

But I think the overwhelming theme (and the one that is probably most relevant to today’s audience) is that women are worth more than their “lady parts.”  The main character, Lizzie, drives this point home at the end of the novel when she is thinking about the things she needs to teach her daughter so she could survive in a world where her skin and sex determined her worth:

Never forget your name.  Keep track of your years and how old you are.  Don’t be afraid to show how you feel.  Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts. (p. 238)

Wow.  This is a powerful statement that simply permeates the novel.  The slave women are concubines who are treated as sexual playthings by their masters and scorned by their mistresses, yet, they try to carve out some semblance of love and respectability amongst themselves and others within the slave community.

I’d recommend this novel as an additional reading source for a college level American history course.  Tawawa House was a real place and the relationship described between the slave masters and the slave women is one that hasn’t really been explored in other writings but could lead to some interesting in~class discussions (especially when considered alongside the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings).


Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review,African American ReviewNorth Carolina Literary Review, and the Richard Wright Newsletter. Born and raised in Memphis, a graduate of Harvard, and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Perkins-Valdez teaches creative writing at the University of Puget Sound. She splits her time between Washington, D.C. and Seattle, Washington. This is her first novel.

Facebook: Dolen Perkins~Valdez

Reader’s Guide:  Wench:  A Novel

Website:  Dolen Perkins~Valdez

Disclosure:  My opinion of this book is my own and refers to the electronic version of this book.  I did not receive any compensation for this post.  The picture links to the Nook version of this book on the Barnes and Noble website. Book description was also taken from the Barnes and Noble website.