My weekend visit to Barnes & Noble reminded me of the upcoming release of Balm, a historical novel about the meshing of three lives in the Midwest after the Civil War. While I was drafting my post about the release, it dawned on me that I should probably revive a 2011 review of her first novel, Wench. . .
The slave/husband-figure arrangements mentioned in the description of Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez instantly captured my interest. In all my reading about slavery and genealogy, Lizzie’s and Nathan’s arrangement is the first of its type I’ve encountered. While it’s certainly conceivable from a physical standpoint, it’s most definitely inconceivable from both a historical and an emotional one.
“Six slaves sat in a triangle, three women, three men, the men half nestled in the sticky heat of thighs, straining their heads away from the pain of the tightly woven ropes.”
This author “can turn a phrase,” as the saying goes; and comes out full throttle in her debut novel. The activity being described above is that of the traditional positions assumed for hair braiding. The men were getting their hair braided by the women. Just imagine them seated on the ground rather than on stools as shown in the picture. Readers can look forward to more of this type of brilliant narrative in Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. She subtly and cleverly sparks the imagination by leaving things unsaid. Her implied word engages the reader to conform the idea to his understanding — an excellent example of “reading between the lines.” The author can express an idea in a manner which allows each reader to arrive at the same thought on his own terms. Dialect was natural and not forced, as I’ve seen in some attempts at fictionalizing the concept of slavery.
The story covers three summers during the middle of the 19th century at a resort then known as the Tawawa House — which later became Ohio Africa University — which was ultimately named Wilberforce University — near Xenia, Ohio. The story opens in media res during the summer of 1852 — the slaves’ second summer at the resort. The storyline consists of two sub-plots and vacillates between activities at the Ohio resort and the Drayle plantation in Tennessee. The first sub-plot centers around Lizzie and her summer friends from other plantations, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu. Phillip, another slave from the Drayle plantation, accompanies his master on the annual vacations as well. He and Lizzie share a sibling-type bond. Henry and George round out the group of male slaves — with the dimensions of Phillip’s character being the most developed. The second sub-plot includes Lizzie’s interactions with Nathan Drayle, her master/husband-figure — whom she simply calls, “Drayle.” I was leery of the confidence Lizzie had in him; and felt her misplaced trust would come back to bite her. It was one thing to trust him with her own life and the lives of her children. But given the confidence she placed in him, I was concerned — and rightly so — about the other slaves who became part of her “resort family.” The one good thing that came from this arrangement was that they all invested in the “kinship”; and the bonds of their sisterhood remained with, and sustained, each of them. Simply stated, Drayle was a jerk — who was led around by a certain part of his anatomy. Love Lizzie? Never could, never did. Yes, he taught her how to read; but he would not consider or discuss the idea of freeing her or their two children — a son called Nate and a daughter nicknamed, “Rabbit.” I always detected insincerity in his dealings with her. His base motives always overshadowed anything said by or about him. The following observation regarding his absence during Lizzie’s delivery of one of their children (keep it real — his pickaninnies), however, sealed it for me: “He was far from being a worried father. His celebration would be less over a newborn child and more over a newly acquired piece of property.”
Lizzie committed what I consider “the unpardonable sin of slavery” when she confided to Drayle about a slave who was planning to escape. I knew she wasn’t snitching though; and could only shake my head in astonishment at her naieveté. She actually thought his “love” for her extended to her friends; and that he would make an effort to soften the effects of the consequences since he knew her friend’s “man.” Silly girl — tricks are for kids! A mere whim of Fran Drayle, (Nathan’s wife) could bring any plans or provisions he had made for Lizzie crashing against the harsh wall of reality. An example is Fran’s decision to move her visiting nephew, Billy, into the room Drayle had set up for Lizzie; and Drayle did nothing and went along with it. While it appears that both Fran and Lizzie are weak when it comes to “King Drayle, in all actuality, both women know how to manipulate him. He is being pulled in two directions; but, interestingly, he’s never in the position of having to squirm out of the fixes he creates for himself. He’s lackadaisical and doesn’t seem to care. I suffered with Lizzie in her embarrassment as she was moved from the room Drayle had designated for her back to the slave quarters. But Lizzie is smart enough to fend for herself. When vacation time comes, she doesn’t check her plantation train of thought at the gate of the resort. She never really lets her guard down — not even when escorted to a luxurious dinner in the main dining room. She knows what time it is. We all know. While, at times, she feels like “Mrs. Drayle,” deep inside, she knows her role and usually manages to get something out of the deal.
And there was one more thing she had managed to escape with: . . . the pamphlet. She needed to find a safe place for it, somewhere it could sit for a few years. She planned to give it to Nate once he was a man, so that he too could feel the heat of the words and channel his young anger into the righteous fury of this Wendell Phillips.”
I did not want this story to end. One critique I have is that the expanse of time between major events began to decrease toward the end — as if the author were trying to “hit all the bases” before heading home. But my “critique” is hardly a negative one. It’s an indication that I’m waiting for more from Perkins-Valdez. The Author’s Note explains the true existence, and background, of Tawawa Resort. The publisher offers a Reading Guide at on the Harper Collins website.
Copyright © 2015 Donna Palmer Haines