It’s easy to imagine Wench as a writing exercise for first-time novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Her skills seem to grow within the course of the book’s four sections: It starts off as a clichéd condemnation of slavery, but grows into a genuinely heartfelt look at love and sisterhood.
The story follows Lizzie, the slave mistress of Southern plantation owner Nathan Drayle. Most of the action takes place at the historical Tawawa House, an Ohio summer resort where slaveholders often brought favored slave women to vacation with them while their wives stayed at home.
The novel begins weakly, introducing the other women of Tawawa House, who boil down to female slave archetypes. There’s the old and wizened one, the beautiful rebel, and a woman who never seems to get any traits beyond having a lot of kids. The section also contains the most dialogue, spoken in broken English that while probably historically accurate, is jarring and depicts the characters as too basic to express complex ideas. Perkins-Valdez also spends so much time ladling sins onto the masters—incest, rape, brutality—that they turn into one-dimensional monsters.
But as Lizzie’s story unfolds, she becomes the book’s saving grace. The second section goes back in time 10 years to chronicle the events that led her to Tawawa. The courtship between Lizzie and her master throws into question the emotional effects slavery had on them both. Drayle is deeply flawed, but mostly he’s just a man, grappling with his desires, his affections, and the social standards of his time. As the story humanizes a slaveholder, it also shows the human flaws of slaves, revealing that jealousy and fear can make them just as terrible to one another as their masters. The realizations about the cruelty and beauty Lizzie can find in the world, the tug of obligation between her own needs and those of her friends and children, and the power she holds even as a slave produce a believable coming-of-age story.
By the time the text returns to Tawawa, Perkins-Valdez relies less on dialog and more on just writing what the main characters learn, as if they shared a collective consciousness. When there is dialogue, new emotional content adds depth that makes it easier to overlook the grammar.
The idea of fleeing to free territory is posed early in the story, and in a lesser book, all four of the primary women would escape together to some happy conclusion. Instead, each character meets a unique ending, and the contrast helps make their final tragedies and victories more powerful.