I am a white bleeding heart liberal about to review a book about slavery, so I need to apologize for being white and acknowledge my white guilt. I’m not being sarcastic here. I’m sometimes frozen with “Every single choice I could make right now is about to piss someone off so I’m just going to apologize for everything.” Then it’s your fault if you get offended because I clearly told you not to get offended. No tag backs.
I like picking up a historical fiction book and realizing I have no freaking clue about the topic. Sure, I might know a few superficial things, but once I start reading I realize these things actually happened for real and I’m going to want to think about them for a bit.
Wench is that type of book. I knew about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I knew some slave owners raped their slaves. I knew some treated them well, or as well as you can treat someone you view as your property and isn’t really human. I’ve thought about the conflicting emotions and weirdly defined relationships between the owners and the slaves. I’ve thought about it in terms of today’s psychology and wondered about the dynamics of a slave needing a master to survive and h0w horrible that is.
Wench does an amazing job with this last part.
Tawawa House is in Ohio and is a summer retreat for the men of the South. They bring their slave mistresses with them and are able to have a sort of open relationship with them, but at all times the women know they are property and the owners know they are powerful white men.
Perkins-Valdez creates four women with four different attitudes towards their men and their situations. The four only see each other over the summers and know nothing about what happens to the others when the summer ends.
The women represent, for me anyway, the basic dynamics of what I think it might have been like to be a slave mistress. (See how carefully I constructed that sentence so I wouldn’t presume to say as a white woman I understand? It’s really condescending, isn’t it? And yet I can’t stop doing it.)
One mistress is in love with her master and believes he is doing right by her and their children. Another has dissociated so completely that she doesn’t even react when explaining the near constant cruelty from her master. A third is pregnant and used as collateral against the other slaves and strives to keep the status quo to keep things from getting better or worse. The last is angry and will fight to the death to stop her master from hurting her and to make a run for freedom.
The story follows Lizzie, the one in love with her master. She is at times bemused by the other slaves’ anger and fear towards their masters, yet she realizes she is in a delicate position and can lose her favored status easily. She is at times naive, at times calculating, at times a survivalist, and she is often confused.
The books loops through two summers and Lizzie’s back story as she starts to come to terms with who she is, who she is as defined by her white master and his wife, and who she wants to be as defined by herself.
I was pleased with the ending of the book in that it made sense and fit the characters. But one relationship I couldn’t understand was between Lizzie and her master’s wife, Fran. Fran has not been able to have children, so when Lizzie gives birth to first a son and then a daughter, she becomes more of a threat, even though she is still property. Fran is at times is the stereotypical cruel white mistress of the house but other times treats Lizzie almost as a friend. I was confused by Lizzie’s responses as well. She goes from distrusting Fran’s every movement knowing that Fran can try to sell her or demote her back to the slave quarters, but then later confides in her as if they are friends. I didn’t understand the shift in their relationship. There was one particular moment where Lizzie confides a major secret to Fran. I didn’t understand why she told her, and I didn’t understand Fran’s reaction to the news.
This would be a great book club pick because there is so much to discuss. The part for me that was the most interesting was the relationship between Lizzie and her master. She defines herself completely through him and lives in a reality that she has willingly helped to create where she can only survive if he is there to guide her and keep her his property. There were times when I wanted to shake her for being so blind and having such misplaced hope and yet I understood why she thought he would treat her fairly and discuss their children rationally. It is as if she forgets that he sees her and the children as his property. This part felt familiar and universal. There’s that idea that if you love someone hard enough they will change and that you can somehow make your emotions become logic if you hang on long enough. Lizzie felt authentic because of this. She made decisions that fit her position as a slave living in 1853.
It’s a difficult book to get through because of the topic and the frustration I had for these women. It was also difficult because I hadn’t thought of these kinds of relationships, except in a superficial way.
A book like this makes me want to start a book club so I can hear what’s going on in everyone else’s heads.