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'Wench,' Dolen Perkins-Valdez 

Four black women join their men at a resort. The women don’t have any choice: It’s 1852, and they’re slaves.

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In Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, four women forge friendships that they need to last for their lifetimes.

Set way back from the road and surrounded by woods, Tawawa House was grand. Three stories high and 64 miles from Cincinnati, it sparkled white and featured 12 small cabins surrounding a quiet lake. Though Northerners weren’t happy about it, it was the perfect place for a Southern gentleman to bring his mistress. Particularly if she was also his slave.

It felt to Lizzie like her trip from Tennessee to Ohio in 1852 took forever, maybe because she was always chained. Drayle said it was necessary, though, and she believed him. Why not? He was her man, father of her children, and though he owned her, she loved him. Yes, her situation was crystal-clear — Drayle’s wife never let her forget it — but Lizzie wasn’t going anywhere.

At Tawawa House, Lizzie knew she would re-kindle friendships with Reenie and Sweet. Their men always brought them, too, along with at least one other slave to care for the horses and other work. But that summer when Lizzie met Mawu — well, things sure did change.

Lizzie had never met anybody like Mawu, with her halo of red hair and freckles. She was a sassy one, and Lizzie wanted to be friends with Mawu very much, unlike the other members of their slave quartet. With her regal ways, Reenie was suspicious; Sweet, meanwhile, was too preoccupied with the baby in her belly to pay much attention to a smart-talking wench like Mawu.

But Mawu knew a few things. She reminded the other women that Ohio was a free state, and that there was a vacation resort for black folk just through the woods. It was only a walk away…

I didn’t like Wench at first: the set-up and the character introductions felt sketched-in and moved too fast. But Perkins-Valdez tells a heartbreaking and unsettling tale, full of secrets and lies. The women nurture their friendships because they’re compelled to do so. Perkins-Valdez’s storytelling has great timing, which serves to keep her readers guessing right to the end of the last page.

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