Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Last summer I ran into a friend at the library and she absolutely raved about a book she had just finished. I put it on my list and downloaded it from Audible.com a few weeks and finished it tonight.
Let the raving begin!
The book is Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and it is truly an amazing book that surprised me, moved me, and kept me sitting in my car listening long after I had arrived at my destination. It was published in January of this year, and the paperback is due out in January of 2011.
Wench is the story of Lizzie, a slave from Tennessee, who visits a summer resort in Ohio with her master, Drayle, in the 1840's and 1850's. Lizzie is Drayle's mistress and the mother of his only children. At the resort, she develops bonds with other slave women who are at the resort with their masters, and Perkins-Valdez tells a powerful story of Lizzie's development from naive young girl who yearns for love to a mature woman who balances her need for freedom with her responsibilities to her children and her instinct for survival.
Just as I was caught up in the voices and stories of the women in The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which I read earlier this year, I was caught up and swept away by the voices and stories of not only Lizzie but Mawu, Reenie, and Sweet as well as Philip, Lizzie's friend and protector, and even Drayle and his wife, Fran.
This is definitely the other side of the story to that told by Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind, showing slavery for the violent, deplorable institution that it was and the people who were enslaved as complex and conflicted individuals. Perkins-Valdez did a wonderful job of showing the slaves and their masters as so much more than cardboard cutout, stock characters. Lizzie is warm and maternal, Mawu is wild and impulsive, Reenie is stoic, Sweet is Sweet, and their masters are as varied as they are, yet all are as bound to their roles as masters as their slaves are bound to them.
I loved entering this world and feeling and smelling and hearing the rich stew of details that Perkins-Valdez created. It was never an easy world to witness but I feel that I understand the slave experience that is so much a part of the American experience better for having read this book.
I said in my intro paragraph that Wench surprised me, and by that I mean that the emotions it stirred in me surprised me. For example, just as I was mentally urging on Lizzie to make a run for it--at one point she has a map of the underground railroad in her hands and is memorizing it--the reality of the risks involved in escaping rained down and I found myself mentally urging Lizzie to outlast Drayle, as I knew what she couldn't...that the Civil War was just around the corner.
Wench provides a powerful, interesting, life-affirming story that is an important part of the American fabric. It's a great read!
Saturday, June 26, 2010
I finished The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, last week, and at a friend's insistence, I listened to the audio version. I can heartily recommend both the book and the audio version--I really liked the different voices for the different narrators, although my family did inform me that I was starting to talk in a southern accent as I neared the end of the book. Usually I only listen to audio books in the car, but this book was so compelling and I wanted to know what happened so badly, that I loaded up my iphone with the book and just plugged in while I was making dinner, watering plants, and generally futzing around the house. I even used my precious reading time to listen instead of read!
For those of you who haven't heard the basic story line, Skeeter Phelan (aka Eugenia), a 23-year old white woman who has moved back to her parents' cotton farm (aka plantation) in Jackson, Mississippi after failing to get her MRS degree from Ole Miss (aka University of Mississippi), though she did get a degree in journalism, wants to be a writer and hits upon the notion of writing a book based on the true stories of the town's African-American maids (i.e., what is it like to work for a white family in Jackson, MS). Since the story is set in the early 1960's, right when Civil Rights was really starting to get going in the South, Skeeter and the maids she eventually convinces to talk to her are running a huge risk--not only are their jobs at risk but their physical safety, even their lives, are in danger.
Stockett does an absolutely fantastic job of sustaining tension throughout the novel, and she gives each of her main characters, who take turns with the narration, something very real that they can win by their courageous acts or lose if their anonymity is compromised. She also makes each of these women--Skeeter, Abileen, and Minnie--enormously appealing in very different ways. And to her credit, even the villains of the story, in particular, Skeeter's former best friend, Miss Hilly, are not without shades of gray. For me, the overriding theme of the novel is that everyone has their side of the story. Enabling people to find their voice and tell their story proves once again the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword.
It is a women's story, though, with the only men being Skeeter's sometime boyfriend, Stuart Whitworth, her quiet and kind father, Minnie's abusive husband, and the shadowy, mostly absent husbands of the white families that the maids serve. I loved how it ended, with the notion that the white women who ostracized Skeeter were ultimately trapped in sad, narrow lives that they couldn't change because of their blinding prejudices, and the maids, who lived in fear and near poverty, were able to break away and forge new lives and new beginnings because of their courage and willingness to sacrifice a lot in order to truly help each other.
I enjoyed this book immensely--I've been thinking about it for days--and I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing the movie that is now in the works. I hope it gets on the curriculum at high schools all over the U.S. It would be perfect in both English classes and American history classes.