When Perkins-Valdez chanced upon the true story of an Ohio resort called the Tawawa House, she knew she was on to something. For a few years before the Civil War, this rural inn allowed Southern slaveholders to vacation there with their enslaved mistresses as if they were ordinary married couples. Her curiosity about the lives of these women couldn’t be satisfied by the scant facts available, so she turned to fiction. History’s loss is our gain.
Unlike Butler’s KINDRED or Morrison’s BELOVED, WENCH (2010) is not filled with horrific physical violence. The four women at the heart of the story are, relatively speaking, privileged. Lizzie, the viewpoint character, even has her own bedroom in the “big house”–though she has to share it, against her will, with her enslaver, Drayle. She’s had two children by him that she loves without reservation. She thinks she may be in love with Drayle, and he with her.
The women, who all come from different plantations in different parts of the South, only meet once a year, for a few weeks in the summer. Mawu, with her fiery red hair, is immediately the most memorable. She’s the one who fights back against the predations of her enslaver, who talks about escape. She relentlessly pushes the others to face the reality of their positions.
And that reality, as Perkins-Valdez makes increasingly clear, is that although they may be privileged, they are still property. The women may forget it for short stretches of time, but the men who own them never do.
I believe unequivocally that the way to render dialect on the page is through word choice and rhythm, not phoneticization. Phonetic spelling is a single-edged sword wielded almost exclusively against the poor. In WENCH, Perkins-Valdez shows us how to write dialect without condescension or prettifying, without dropped Gs on the one hand or flights of poetry on the other. Each of the women has a distinct voice that reflects her character and upbringing–Mawu’s abrupt, Lizzie’s educated, Sweet’s maternal, Reenie’s country. Their conversation crackles with the heat of life.
As for the descriptive prose, it is also completely free of grandstanding, evocative when it needs to be, but always welded to Lizzie’s viewpoint, drawing you deeper into the character, and into the novel, with every word.
The historic details are utterly persuasive, the settings vivid, the summer heat and smells of sweat and cooking fires inescapable. But it’s the truth of the characters’ emotions that rings most loudly of all.