Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
This debut novel tells the story of Lizzie, a young slave woman living on a Tennessee plantation in the 1850s who is claimed as what amounts to a concubine by her white master at the age of 13. Lizzie goes on to bear his children and live in the "big house" living a life of relative privilege compared to the field slaves. The trade-off is that she is expected to acquiesce to her master's sexual demands wherever and whenever he wishes, and she bears his children. The arrangement is for the most part accepted, although not without resentment, by the master's white wife, who cannot bear children. There is actually some tenderness between Lizzie and her master, and the reader is left wondering if it can be some form of love, although it is difficult to reconcile the scenes of tenderness with the scenes in which Lizzie is chained or tied up.
Over the course of three summers, her master takes her to a resort (which actually existed, although this is a fictional story) up North, in "free" country, where southern white masters take their slave concubines and live openly as couples for a few weeks each year. At this resort, Lizzie befriends three other slave women who share her circumstances, and it is here that she begins to dream of escape from her bondage, and freedom. Thoughts of her children back on the plantation, who are not only her master's children, but also his legal property, tear at her heart, however, leaving her to struggle with the decision of whether to stay with her master - and therefore her children - or make a run for it.
I think it's pretty common knowledge that white masters in fact did often have sexual relations with their female slaves, and that these unions produced a multitude of offspring. However, this novel lends a new dimension to these relationships. I'm not sure how accurate a depiction it is - is it possible for a person to own another human being and see that person as both a piece of property and a love interest?
It's a good book, and would make a good book club selection. It's easy to get into, a pretty quick, easy and engaging read, and thought provoking enough to facilitate a good discussion.
My hardcover copy is up for grabs.