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Originally published Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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'Wench,' a novel based on a little-known aspect of slavery, due in paperback Tuesday

Author Dolen Perkins-Valdez' "Wench" is the story of four women who met at Tawawa House, where wealthy Southern slaveholders would take their slave mistresses for open-air "vacations."


Dolen Perkins-Valdez was reading a biography of W.E.B. DuBois when she came across the small aside. It was piece of history she hadn't known and couldn't stop thinking about.

The land for Ohio's Wilberforce University, the nation's oldest private historically black college, where DuBois had once taught, at one time had been part of a resort — a place called Tawawa House, where wealthy Southern slaveholders would take their slave mistresses for open-air "vacations."

"I had never heard of anything like that," says Perkins-Valdez, who has taught writing at Tacoma's University of Puget Sound.

Her research into the topic turned into the novel "Wench," out in paperback Tuesday. It's the story of four slave mistresses — "wenches " — who become furtive friends at Tawawa House. They contemplate freedom, learn each other's stories and deepest fears. Some stories are brutal, but the main character, Lizzie, sleeps in the same bed with her owner, the father of her two children, and thinks herself in love with him. And he with her.

"Wench," which went through seven printings after its hardcover release last January and has a first paperback printing of 135,000, raises questions about complex parts of slavery that are less explored for lack of written accounts.

What kinds of accommodations and negotiations took place between slaves and masters? What passed for love? The novel looks at what history gets privileged and what gets forgotten.

"I think there's sort of a tendency toward disbelief" with oral histories, Perkins-Valdez says. "Most slaves were illiterate and even when they were literate, their writings didn't survive."

Historian Adele Logan Alexander, author of the book "Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879," says nuance in slavery gets painted over all the time. "People had to make their accommodations, and I think that Perkins-Valdez deals with those ambiguities of history quite well."

The Washington Post

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