Listen, I have to admit that I have a twisted fetish for smutty, trashy, exploitative fictional pulp novels about slavery and the sexual relationships between slaves and their masters. That really sounds bad, doesn’t it? I have no good excuse, except to offer up my mixed race heritage and a love of smut in general. Therefore, it was no surprise that I found myself in the check-out line of my local library branch with this novel in my hands. My favorites of this genre happen to be the series by Kyle Onstott (Drum, Falconhurst Fancy, Mandingo–and the admittedly not nearly as good final book–Master of Falconhurst). However, while the enjoyment of Kyle Onstott’s books come from the voyeuristic and tantalizing nature of reading about all the lurid sex that happens between master and slave (and the master’s wife and the breeding slaves), it’s more about being tantalized by smut than the actual writing than anything else. Wench easily lift itself above being just about sexploitation by also being very well written. Dolen Perkins-Valdez skillfully takes into account the emotional toll of being a slave and weaves it into every aspect of that life. It’s written purely from the perspective of the main character–Lizzie, a female slave and her fellow slave friends that are forced to be the mistresses of their masters. Every year all their masters take them on a trip to Ohio to spend a few weeks at a special resort (which is actually based on real resort that was open from 1852-1855) where–since it’s in a free state that borders the southern slave states and far enough away from prying eyes–the masters can interact with their mistresses in a way that they couldn’t do back at their plantations.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez is phenomenally good at getting into the head of her main character and making you understand the thought processes behind all her decisions, even when one wishes with all their might that she would just stop making excuses for choosing to stay with her master just run away for a chance at being free already! The idea that she could actually have genuine feelings for her master, despite the fact that he started raping her at the age of 13 and the resulting children that followed is very hard for me (and I’m sure most any woman) to comprehend. It’s when reading books like this, that I most thankful to be alive NOW. I will never have any idea of what it was like to live a life as a slave (and a female one, at that, where your status was the lowest among the low) or during a time where slavery was not only tolerated, but encouraged and the very fiber of it woven completely and seemingly permanently into the psyche of society.
The stories of the lives of the four women told by Dolen Perkins-Valdez in this book will make your heart hurt. It’s sickening that the kind of suffering that these women had to go through to stay alive was commonplace and normal. There is never any relief from the effects of subjugation on Lizzie and her friends Maru, Reenie, and Sweet and there are no happy endings. This book is at once captivating from an emotional standpoint and depressing at the same time. It’s Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, and I hope to God that she keeps on writing.