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“Wench” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is an engrossing novel based on a little-known chapter in the history of slavery. From 1852-1856 many Southern plantation owners traveled to the free state of Ohio to spend a few days fishing and relaxing at the health spa in Tawawa Springs, near Xenia.
The waters there were known for their curative powers. The wealthy plantation owners brought their slave/mistresses, but not their wives. There they could smoke their cigars and enjoy their “wenches” without the prying eyes of their wives.
The slaves got to know each other over the years, and, as the story shows,
began to look forward to their annual reunion at Tawawa. One slave, Lizzie,
was lucky in that she was fond of her master. His wife was unable to have children, so he was pleased when Lizzie produced a light-skinned son and a golden-haired daughter. The other wenches were not so fortunate.
At an African-American resort just over the way, free blacks lived and prospered. A Quaker woman living close by spoke of abolition. When some of the slaves started talking about escape, Lizzie was torn. She could not abandon her two children back in Tennessee, and she had convinced herself that she loved Drayle. Over the course of several years, Lizzie began to see the truth about her situation. She learned to believe in herself and not trust the whims of a master.
This novel propels the reader through plantation life, portraying the degradation and humiliation of slavery. But it is also a novel about living with hardships wherever they are found and about the need, in the end, to rely on inner strength and good friends.
Tawawa House really existed from 1852 to1856, but did not do well because of its popularity among Southern plantation owners who brought their slave entourages there. It declined when Northern families stopped coming and antislavery sentiment grew in the area.
In 1856 the Methodist Episcopal Church founded a university on the site. When that institution failed, Bishop Daniel A. Payne bought the property in 1863 for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Taking the reins of Old Wilberforce University where Tawawa had once stood, he became the first African-American to lead a university.