Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez must be about barmaids or pirates or something. When I finally started paying attention to the reviews, I realized just how wrong I was.
Wench is actually a reference to slave women in the 1800s, in this case the wenches of the story are the "mistresses" of southern plantation owners. I put quotes around mistresses because to me the idea of a mistress is a woman who has a financial agreement with her lover. These women are not mistresses but the mistreated sexual slaves of despicable, depraved men. They have no choice in their partners. They are the personal property of these men.
The story is told from the point of view of Lizzie. Lizzie is one of four slave women taken every year to a summer resort in the north visited by their masters. Each woman has her own horrors to endure and her own outlook on the slavery situation. Reenie, Mawu, and Sweet wish to be free and plot their own escapes. Lizzie has convinced herself that she loves her master.
She is practically a child when her owner decides to take her for his own pleasure. At first, he is coaxing and gentle, like he is with his horses, but once Lizzie has a couple of his children he is less so. Lizzie hopes to have those children freed by their father but as the years pass she starts to lose hope.
Lizzie builds friendships with the three other women and looks forward to meeting them every year. She also starts a tentative relationship with a Quaker woman who supplies Lizzie with abolitionist pamphlets. She is intrigued by the idea of freedom but thoughts of abandoning her children leave her torn.
Wench is often a difficult book because of the subject matter. Perkins-Valdez doesn't shy away from the ugliness of these women's situations. As I listened to the story, I was struck time and again at how dehumanizing slavery was. For the black slaves, they are reduced to property, no more valued than a piece of furniture. For the white masters, it reduces them to monsters. I could only believe that they behave this way because they know it is wrong and are overcompensating by acting especially horrific to the slaves; any act of compassion would remind them that these are people and how can you treat a person this way?
Lizzie can be a frustrating narrator since she believes she loves this man. However, I can see why she convinces herself of this. It's a kind of coping mechanism, otherwise she'd give into despair. Despair is something that the slaves rarely give into. Seeing that freedom is possible, it is always there in the back of their minds. If one way closes to them, there is always another. And in that way Wench is a hopeful story.
About the Audio: Wench is read by Quincy Tyler Bernstine. She has a lovely melodious voice. I was impressed by how she could make each character distinctive by a slight change in accent. Very well done. One of the best audio recordings I've heard yet.