An intimate look at the lives of four slaves in 1840s Tennessee
I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.
Coming across a new author and a first novel is always a treat. Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, Wench is an absorbing, heart rending story of a group of women slaves in the middle of the 19th century. The novel centers around four slaves, Sweet, Lizzie, Reenie, and Mawu. All are owned by men with a varying degree of concern for the slaves. Lizzie was the mistress of Drayle, who treated her better than most slave owners, but, nevertheless he was not above slapping or raping her.
Eventually, Mawu revealed her history. Dolen writes, “Mawu told them why she didn’t feel the same pull they felt toward their children. She didn’t live in the big house like Lizzie. Her children did not have special favors like Sweet’s. She hadn’t had a cabin built for her like Reenie. She was just a slave like any other – beaten, used, and made to feel no different than a cow or a goat or a chicken” (42). Later, Mawu was whipped into unconsciousness because her owner heard she was thinking about running away.
Drayle taught Lizzie to read. Perkins-Valdez writes, “As Lizzie learned the meanings of new words and what the letters looked like on the page, […]. She wanted to read everything. She scanned the spines of books along the shelves in Drayle’s library. She looked over [Mistress] Fran’s shoulder as she cleaned around her, straining to make out the handwriting of Fran’s mother. She wanted to read to the slaves in the cabins. There was only one man among them who could read the newspaper, and Lizzie thought she might be able to read as well as he could. She wanted to […] prove that women could learn, have everyone’s eyes hungry for her mouth to open and turn the piece of pulp in her hands into hope” (94-95). Despite her horrific circumstances, the thirst to learn burned in Lizzie’s heart.
Near the end of the novel, Lizzie thinks about her daughter. Dolen writes, “As she leaned against the porch post, she thought of Rabbit and what she would teach her. This was what she would say: Don’t give in to the white man. And if you have to give in, don’t give your soul over to him. Love yourself first. Fix it so you don’t give him children. If you ever make it to freedom, remember your mammy who tried to be good to you. Hold fast to your women friends because they are going to be there when ain’t nobody else there. If you don’t believe in God, it’s all right. God believes in you. Never forget your name. Keep track of your years and how old you are. Don’t be afraid to say how you feel. Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts” (287-288). I find it difficult to imagine a mother having to give her daughter advice like this.
The strength, courage, intelligence, and persistence of these four women was heart-warming, and, sometimes, horrific. But against overwhelming odds, these woman managed to maintain their dignity and raise children, all the while under the constant threat of the whip. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a tremendously inspiring story. While not sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, it demonstrated how – under incredibly difficult circumstances – they were able to maintain a sense of decency to pass onto their children. 5 stars
Likely Stories is a production of KWBU. I’m Jim McKeown. Join me again next time for Likely Stories.