Thursday, May 16, 2013

Should I stay or should I go? A slave contemplates

Wench
Holy cow, this book doesn't hold back.  When I told my friend that I planned to read Wench on audiobook, I asked her if she thought it would be too graphic for an audiobook.  She said no.  "I don't think the graphic-ness was the hard part.  The utter despair of slavery was."

And she was right.  This book is really good in the way that Kindred was really good - it makes slavery so immediate and personal that you cannot look away and you cannot think about it in vague, abstract terms.

Because I'm lazy and want to get to the meat of this review, and because the book summary is actually pretty good, here's how Publishers Weekly describes the novel:

In her debut, Perkins-Valdez eloquently plunges into a dark period of American history, chronicling the lives of four slave women—Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu—who are their masters' mistresses. The women meet when their owners vacation at the same summer resort in Ohio. There, they see free blacks for the first time and hear rumors of abolition, sparking their own desires to be free. For everyone but Lizzie, that is, who believes she is really in love with her master, and he with her. An extended flashback in the middle of the novel delves into Lizzie's life and vividly explores the complicated psychological dynamic between master and slave. Jumping back to the final summer in Ohio, the women all have a decision to make—will they run? Heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez's ability to bring the unfortunate past to life.

This novel's strength is in its ability to bring to life all the gray areas that existed in slavery.  When we learn about it now, we often think of it in strictly black and white (no pun intended) terms.  We imagine cruel masters whipping slaves in chains.  But that vision completely ignores the the complexities that existed under the Peculiar Institution.  It's books like this one that bring those to light.  Lizzie and her friends are all slave mistresses to their masters, mothers to mixed-race children.  When they consider running away, they are considering an opportunity for their own freedom that could have dire consequences for their children.  When they consider staying in their current situation, they are accepting a lifetime of rape.

And even that is putting it in terms that are too rigid.  Lizzie begins the novel believing that she's in love with her master and that they have a very happy relationship.  It's only as she gets to know her friends better that she's able to put her own relationship in context.  As we learn more about her life, we see how her affair with her master impacted her relationship with the plantation wife, with her children, and with other slaves.  Nothing is easy for Lizzie or her friends, and the exhausting balancing act they play all day, every day is so important to know to begin to contemplate the effects of slavery.

So much of slavery's ability to last for so long was based on this power of whites to threaten and manipulate blacks to do things they normally would not.  When Lizzie wants to help her friend that's been badly beaten, her master/lover forbids her to do so and says that if she does anything to help him, he will beat her son to within an inch of his life.  Her son - who is also his son.  And his personal property, since he was born to a slave.  So Lizzie wonders - does he even have fatherly feeling towards her children?  Or does he view them as collateral, disposable property?  When she thinks of her children, she wants desperately for them to be educated as well as whites, but knows that they need to learn some sort of trade so that, if worse comes to worst, they have something of value to barter.

This is such a well-written book that provides an important window to a way of life that we like to gloss over and talk about in blanket terms.  Highly recommended.

29 comments:

  1. Thanks for recommending this, I think it's a book I would really appreciate.
    Have you read Property by Valerie Martin?

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    1. No, I haven't! I will put it on my wish list.

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  2. I've had this on my to-read list but haven't bought it yet. Looks soo amazing.

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  3. This one I do want to read

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  4. Yet another excellent review, thank you. I'd never heard of this book but now am looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Aw, thanks, Sarah! That means a lot to me.

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  5. I've heard that this is a very good book. You also have some great points. Imagine, even the 'best' owners were still owners of PEOPLE. People who have children, and once children are in the picture there's so many other things to consider than just "should I run?". It's possibly never seeing your kids again, maybe they'll be beaten or worse for you running... all kinds of possibilities, none of them good.

    And in those days - this was accepted as a way of life. Imagine what it was like for the very first freedome fighters of all races - just to have the concept that this was wrong when everyone else saw slavery as a way of life, even a right. People can be so....messed up. This has gone on in many countries, ours the most recently - and is covertly going on today.

    It's refreshing to hear about a book that shows all the grey areas, all the different scenarios that were going on with slavery.

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    1. I completely agree. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. It was a great read.

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  6. It's so hard not think about things like slavery in black and white terms, isn't it? I loved Kindred for adding humanity to the topic so I'm sure I will love this one too. I've read several books about wwII where the lines are a bit blurry and I always appreciate the food for thought. People are still people, feelings and all, no matter what the social constructs or political situation.

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    1. Yes, I think this one had a similar effect to Kindred on me. The whole tearing apart of families and the psychological impact... it was hard reading.

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  7. This is going on my to read list right now. It sounds amazing.

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  8. I just finished Kindred, and I know just what you mean - it's good, but in a hard way. I will add this one to my list!

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    1. I think if you enjoyed Kindred, you'd like this one, too.

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  9. I can only handle an extremely small number of books about slavery in a five-year period. I get sick to my stomach. Kindred was my last one, and Beloved before that, and Valerie Martin's book is the next one.

    (I know I shouldn't not read books about slavery because then I will forget about our awful national history. Only I get really upset and nauseated.)

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    1. I clearly need to read Valerie Martin.

      I don't think you will forget the awful national history. I understand how it makes you feel.

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  10. GREAT review -- I want to read this but also really don't -- and you've got me so eager/confused all over again.

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    1. I think you SHOULD read it.

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  11. I've had this book on my radar for a long time, but this review really made me want to go out and read it right now. Thanks for posting about it!

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    1. So glad it helped remind you about it!

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  12. Oh good! I wasn't sure what 'type' of book this was if that makes sense, but now I definitely want to read it.

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    1. I think you for sure would enjoy this one.

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  13. Thanks for a great review of an excellent book. I read Wench when it first came out and thought it was so powerful. I can't wait to see what this author will do next.

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    1. I know! I hope she writes more.

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  14. Great review. Thank you.

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  15. I have this. Now I think I really must read it!

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