Friday night, I braved the cold and snow to attend a book reading/signing for author, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, Wench. Out of all of the book reviews I’ve done, this was my very time actually attending a book signing. I’d already done the book review for a publication, including a phone interview with her. She’s a native Memphian who is finally getting the recognition she deserves in the literary industry.
What intrigued me most wasn’t that the body of work came from a Memphian, but the story itself is one that needs to be shared. It’s a fictional take on history, a love story and look at friendship between women and slaves. I’m half-way through the book and I feel like I know each of these women. They each have a special story to tell–and it all takes place while on “vacation” at Tawawa House.
Tawawa House resort is located in the free state of Ohio in the mid-1800s. Beautiful and secluded, it is also the place where white masters vacation with their enslaved mistresses, including Lizzie, Reenie and Sweet. Over the years, the three women have formed a bond through commonalities and differences—physical and psychological ties to their masters and family matters. Enter Mawu, another mistress from Louisiana, who shares dreams of freedom with the women—after all, they are in a free state. All four women’s relationships with their masters and their lives on their respective plantations chance being changed forever.
The Tawawa House was a real place, open from 1851-1854. It later became Wilberforce College, a historically black university. “There was no record left behind (from vacationers or slaves),” says Perkins-Valdez. “I couldn’t stop asking myself, ‘how did it happen? How did they get away with it?’ I decided I would go into the imaginative side.”
A novel about slave mistresses isn’t a new idea–consider Sally Hemmings’ reported longtime relationship with president Thomas Jefferson or any Alex Haley novel (Roots, Queen). What is new is a story told from several women’s points of view. Each character has her own relationship with her master, some based on love, others based on shame and ownership. She has hopes for herself and her children who are born into slavery, but have nearly white skin and straight hair. What will their futures look like? Will they ever be free?
Perkins-Valdez vividly paints each picture to illustrate the complexity in these slaves’ relationships. Everything isn’t as black and white as one would like to think. “This is a part of out shared American history,” said Perkins-Valdez at the book review. “It’s healthy to talk about it.”
Currently residing in Seattle, Washington, Perkins-Valdez is very much in touch with her southern roots. “I will always carry Memphis with me,” she says. “I think it’s (Wench) a book that every person with interest in the history and legacy of slavery should read.”
Check Perkins-Valdez out at www.dolenperkinsvaldez.com.
**Some excerpts taken from the January 2010 issue of Grace Magazine.