Wench by Dolen Perkins Valdez
Wench is set in an Ohio resort town in the 1840s and 1850s, where Southern slaveowners would vacation, bringing their slave mistresses with them and living with them as if they were married. The main characters are four of these women, tantalized by the prospect of freedom, set apart from other slaves by their relationships with their masters, but not considered human beings by their lovers. The resort town itself is a strange in-between zone, populated by both whites and free blacks, in a free state that’s nevertheless under the jurisdiction of the Fugitive Slave Act. It’s a place where the slaveowners can dress up their slave lovers and take them out in public, but where the women are still subject to beatings and threats from their masters and other white men. Sometimes the novel feels like a list of violations and tragedies: a woman is anally raped in public as a punishment for attempting to run away, another is raped by a fellow slave while in chains on the deck of a riverboat, a third is punched in the face by her master at a dinner party, the last loses three children in an epidemic and cannot even say goodbye. The novel focuses on Lizzie, the one of the four whose master has the kindest surface, and who seems to feel something like love for her master, at least in the beginning. The friendship between the women was a beautiful vision of hope in a dark place; their care for each other helped them endure their abuse and suffering. At least one of them does reach freedom; the ending is kind of undetermined about Lizzie’s fate, but she gains at least a kind of inner freedom. Wench is an affecting story, told in lyrical dialect, with sensitive attention to language and the heartbreaking contradictions of master/slave relationships.