By Terri Schlichenmeyer
You weren’t even sure why you were there. Who needs class reunions, anyhow? Would any of your friends attend?
You were hoping, as you slid into the old gym, that you’d at least see one or two old pals. You were hoping, too, that someone had insisted on name tags to help jog memories and match names with the aging faces of the kids you lost track of: classmates, lab buddies, locker neighbors, friends who faded away days after school ended.
Throughout your life, friendships come and go like seasons. Sometimes, you’ll barely notice. But in the new book “Wench” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, four women forge a summer friendship that they need to last lifetimes.
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 the trip from Tennessee to Ohio took forever, maybe because she was always chained, which Drayle said was necessary. She believed him and 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 rekindle 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 of 1852, 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 her. Regal Reenie was suspicious and Sweet was too preoccupied by the baby in her belly to be concerned with a smart-talking wench like Mawu.
But Mawu knew some things. She reminded the 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 initial setup of the plot and the introduction of the characters felt boggy and moved too fast for comfort. There were enough hints of promise, though, so I stuck around. I was glad I did.
Perkins-Valdez tells a heartbreakingly unsettling tale of secrets, lies and power, and the friendships of women who nurture a bond because circumstances have forced it. Perkins-Valdez’s storytelling has great timing, which serves to keep her readers guessing right to the last page. Despite its somberness, I highly recommend this book.
If you read “Wench,” make yourself stick through the first few pages and you’ll be rewarded with a fine story you won’t forget. As it turns out, this is a novel with class.