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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

WENCH – by Dolen Valdez

Did you know there was a resort close to Xenia, Ohio called Tawawa, where in the 1800s southern men could vacation with their slave lovers? I did a bit of research and the place did exist. There is a marker at the site of Wilberforce University that makes reference to the resort in Greene County, Ohio. At the NPR website there is an interview with the author that explains more about the resort and the reason it was chosen by southerners which had to do with accessibility for them.

Anyway, it isn't a long book and was quite surprising. Apparently Tawawa became a safe haven for Southern slave holders to meet, escape for a while, evade the prying eyes of their communities and their wives, and live for a while in ease with their slave lovers. I had never encountered this concept or similar stories before. Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu are the slave women whose vacation lives we examine in this engaging book. We see them during their “vacations” over four years during the 1850s at which time the Fugitive Slave Act was in place. Therefore, while in Ohio, though the women are in a free state, if caught after escaping their masters they would legally have to be returned. Assured, there would be dire consequences. Also there are children or other family back in the South that they do not wish to leave behind. In some cases they really do love their men/owners too and their lives, loves, and fears are complicated.

While at the resort the women still work. They take care of their master's cabins or work in the resort. They do get to dine elegantly in nicer clothes (actually left behind by white vacationers summers before) in the evenings. Lizzie knows her master Drayle actually does love her and their children. And yet, in the South property is property, therefore their children live in the quarters separated from their mother. Drayle keeps Lizzie in the main house. One of my favorite excerpts was read by the author on NPR and follows:

He brought her books. The first word she learned to read and write was she, and it delighted her so much, she wrote it everywhere she could. She wrote it in the biscuit batter with her spoon. She dug it in the dirt out back with a stick. She sketched it in the steamy windows when it rained. When she pricked her palm with a kitchen knife, she squeezed the skin until she could write her new word out with blood on a scrap of cloth. She traced the word with her fingers on the smooth parts of his body while they laid together in the storeroom at night.

That scene to me illustrates Lizzie's intelligence and yet how it is that she came to love him.

Mawu does not fare as well as Lizzie. She hates her master/lover and there are plenty of violent scenes between them. She also knows perfectly well what it means that they are in free territory and tries to plot escape. She practices a type of Voodoo and has no use for the passivity of the Christianity that the rest ascribe to.

For a short book there is plenty to think about and examine. I recommend it.


  1. Mrs. Dann!! Its Jena, formally Jena Scott. I'm so happy I found your blog. I don't know if you remember me, its been awhile (2002). I looked on the school website hoping to send you an email to catch up and I came across your lovely blog. Every time I read a good book I think of you. I am currently living in Chicago with my husband and cat, working at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I'm still an avid reader and library lover. I hope you are well!

    1. I have looked for you many times Jenna. I left notes on your blog to contact me. I miss talking to you. I am not at AC anymore.