First, I need to tell you I’m in two places today.
Obviously, I’m here, preparing to go all 3rd Grade Book Report on you, but also, I’m guest-blogging at Drama Mama’s popular site, where she has kindly dubbed 36×37 as “the Best Scoop of the Week.” In addition to featuring my blog this week, Drama Mama asked me to create an original piece using “window” as my one-word prompt. I decided to write about the first (and only) time I fired someone. It’s a regrettable moment in my personal history, but it makes a good story.
So, please stop by Drama Mama’s site today to say hello, read about her adorable family, and meet other bloggers through her Best Scoop of the Week feature—because it’s always nice to encounter new voices.
Now. Back to Wench…
Look. You didn’t read the book, I know that. And it’s fine. It’s a busy life we lead, right? Maybe you couldn’t find the book in time, or you just found out about The Club last week, or perhaps you threw the book against the wall in frustration the moment you finished chapter 7. (No? That was just me?) At any rate, this doesn’t have to be a problem. After consulting GB, my “idea guy,” I’ve decided to execute a fool-proof plan: I’ll tell you what the book is about, then I’ll ask questions you can answer without having read a word of this month’s selection. Agreed?
(Please say “Agreed.” I don’t want to spend the next three minutes talking to myself. I’ll be lonely.)
Wench begins at Tawawa House, a vacation resort in Xenia, Ohio, that boasts a rather untraditional clientele: a cluster of pre-Civil War plantation owners and their favored, enslaved mistresses. At Tawawa House (which actually existed, and was eventually purchased by Wilberforce University), the men can enjoy their relationships in a relaxed social atmosphere, without their wives or the constraints of southern society.
The story follows Lizzie, mistress to Nathan Drayle, a poor horseman so skilled in his southern charm that he has managed to marry a woman of means. When Drayle discovers his wife, Francesca, is barren, he turns his attention to the then-12-year-old Lizzie and teaches her to read as part of a slow, sickening strategy of seduction.
Eventually, Drayle fathers Lizzie’s two fair-skinned children—Nate and Rabbit—whom he refuses to free despite Lizzie’s constant pleading. The children become currency in Drayle’s strange, entangled family dynamic by existing under Francesca’s doting but inconsistent care. There evolves a short-term exchange of sorts: Lizzie claims Drayle while Francesca claims his children—a subversive tug-of-war against Drayle’s overarching power.
Drayle and Lizzie visit Tawawa house from 1852-1855. Through the course of those summers, Lizzie cultivates friendships with three other mistresses: Reenie, the wizened one; Mawu, the gorgeous radical; and Sweet, the quiet, matriarch.
Each woman has a unique, sometimes sordid relationship with her master. Reenie’s owner (and half-brother) prostitutes her “services” to the house manager when he’s not too busy raping her himself. Mawu is regularly brutalized by her owner, who says he’s drawn to her because she always fights back. We’re not told much about Sweet and her master, but when all five of their children are taken in a bout of cholera, she sews burial dresses from scraps while he takes an extended fishing trip with friends. Finally, there’s Drayle, who is generous with affection, as long as Lizzie doesn’t ask for much and she bends to his will whenever (and wherever) the spirit moves him.
Not far from Tawawa House, there’s a resort for freed and thriving African Americans. Mawu is inspired by the site of prosperity and is hell-bent to catch her freedom, too. She spends the remainder of the novel convincing her friends to run away with her.
In a lesser novel, the four women would take flight together and make it to safety through the stalwart help of a string of dedicated northern abolitionists. For those of you who want to read the book, I won’t spoil the ending. Let’s just say the journey is long, and it’s not at all what you’d expect.
Honestly, there are a few things I don’t love about this book. Here’s my main issue: In 290 pages, Perkins-Valdez tells us almost nothing about three out of four of her central characters. As a reader, I want the goods on character motivation, and I didn’t get what I wanted in that regard. I want to understand the undercurrent of tragedy before I can celebrate its burial. I need more to help me process this bitter mark on American history.
When it comes to Lizzie, Perkins-Valdez never cuts corners. The book has four parts, and in each, Lizzie is artfully dissembled to reveal a loyal, intelligent, complicated woman who must decide what takes precedence in her conscience: her love for her children, or her love for herself; her faith in her lover or her faith in her friends; her desire for freedom or her need for security. She can’t conceive of these answers on her own; she finds them through sisterhood and tragedy.
So the themes are captivating. They’re the reason I kept reading and ultimately changing my mind about a novel that at first seemed to exist as an excuse to be salacious. Could you forsake your families for your freedom? Could you expose a friend in an effort to save her? Could you willingly exchange sex for special treatment? Could you truly love someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart?
I’d recommend Wench for these discussion points alone. (Plus, despite Perkins-Valdez’s downfall in the character development department, she’s a damn fine writer.) I closed the book three weeks ago, and have been thinking about it ever since.
Now I want to know what you think.(Remember our agreement?)
Feel free to answer any or all of the questions below.
1) Imagine that your family has been enslaved for generations. Your master treats you well whenever it suits him, and your children are sometimes favored at home. Would you make a break for freedom if given the chance?
2) Your friend reveals that she’s planning to flee from a man who brutalizes her. If she’s caught on the run, she’ll be killed. If you expose her plans, she’ll be beaten and humiliated, but at least she’ll be safe. What do you do?
3) An authoritative figure claims your children, and you’re powerless to stop it. How do you cope?
4) It’s 1855, six years before the Civil War begins. You discover a fleeing slave asleep on your property. Do you offer shelter and refuge, turn a blind eye, or turn him in?
I’ve done my part. Now the future of the Online Book Club rests in the balance. Sound off in the comments below. (Or, don’t, if you’re not compelled to. If at the end of the day the comments section is empty, please give me a few days to recover from my embarrassment, and let us never speak of this experiment again.)
Once I have all your answers, I’ll add my own to the bottom of the comments chain.
P.S. – Don’t forget to stop by Drama Mama’s site to read my new post today. Looking forward to seeing you there!
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