Author: Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Publication: 2010 by HarperCollins
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.
What I Thought About It . . .
One of the things which appealed to me about this book is the fact that the resort the novel centers around is based on a real place in Ohio. It takes place about a decade before the Civil War so that also piqued my interest in it because I like to read books leading up to the war and during it. I’ve been wanting to read it since its publication, but it wasn’t until I seen that it’s now available in paperback that I finally decided to stop procrastinating and get a copy from my library. Praise for it by Lalita Tademy, author of Cane River, made me wonder why I waited so long!
The complex relationships in this novel are not sugar-coated and these slave women live in a world that is not black and white. Yes, it is easy to say that given the chance of being in a “free” territory we would all run. Still would you be able to leave those you love behind, your children even if they were the children of your master, whether the product of rape or consent? I did enjoy how the author presented complications to the characters and their motivations. Mawu brings her radical ideas to her new found friends and their perceptions of their situations begin to change. Even Lizzie, who thinks she possesses so much control over her owner, sees that she is merely a slave and a female slave at that to be used when he feels like it.
The only thing I didn’t really understand was why Lizzie’s extended flashback happens in the middle of the novel. It seems that it would have been more suiting to be positioned at the beginning of it. Nothing new is particularly gleaned from it except that her master took great pains to seduce her into offering her virginity to him when she’s thirteen years old instead of forcing himself on her, as Mawu’s had done when her rejection prompted a beating and her vulnerability during recovery. Can a slave owner really take the time to teach his property to read when all he really wants is a mistress? I suppose it can be a baffling notion as human behavior tends to present itself to be. After all why would one man force another human being into slavery based on nothing more than the color of his skin?
This novel had a very engaging prose and story so that I found myself absorbed by the narrative to the point where I had it finished in a few days. I was so close to the end of the story that I even stayed up past my usual time to retire to bed because I felt I had to know how this engrossing story ended for Lizzie and her friends. So I would most assuredly recommend this novel for any reader out there who possessed a fancy to add it to their book list.