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February 3, 2010

Dolen Perkins-Valdez: Wench

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Today's guest blogger, author Dolen Perkins-Valdez talks about how an interest in old stories and a love of history led her to write WENCH. The book is fictional account of a bit of real history. It tells the story of a resort that opened in 1851 in Xenia, Ohio that was frequented by southern slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. The book takes that real situation and uses fiction to examine what it would have been like for these women.

Once, while giving a presentation to an audience at UCLA that included distinguished history professors, I apologized for not being a "real" historian. At the end of my presentation, one of those historians in the back raised his hand. He told me that I was, indeed, a "real" historian and that the quality of my work proved it.

Over the years I have met many people who, like me, have an interest in historical narrative. Whether it be an interest in the Victorian era or the Middle Ages or the Industrial Revolution, many people who are not formally trained possess an extensive knowledge of another era. I have learned that, often, these "armchair" historians have the most interesting stories to tell. Their passion is not of the professional kind. It is personal, and they make it come alive for me as they share this heartfelt connection. I even love to hear about people's genealogical findings, and their discovery of ancestors who accomplished everyday heroic acts.

Even so, I never set out to write a historical novel. Now I understand that it must have been inevitable given my interest in old stories. My debut novel WENCH began when I stumbled upon a fascinating footnote of history. While reading a biography of W.E.B. DuBois, I learned that during the 1850s, there was a summer resort near Xenia, Ohio notorious for its popularity among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I was stunned to learn this little-known historical fact. I decided to do a bit of excavation and learn more. At the time, it was very popular among the country's elite to visit natural springs. This particular resort opened in 1852, and its owner did not expect that it would become popular among slaveowners. Advances in transportation, however, allowed southerners to make the trip north each summer. I knew that Ohio was a free state and many of its residents were ardent abolitionists. I was fascinated to learn that because they did not enjoy vacationing with these southerners and their slave entourages, they stopped coming and business declined. The place closed in 1855.

I wanted to know more about these women who visited the resort with their masters. However, most slaves did not leave written historical records. I found myself entering an imaginative territory that would prove to be much more fertile than documents. I began by asking myself the following questions: If the women entered free territory, why wouldn't they attempt to escape? Is it possible that they actually loved the men? As I made my way through draft after draft, I discovered that these were not questions easily answered. Even the answers I thought I would find turned out to be much more complicated than I'd imagined. The attachments these women had to their masters had many layers. As I approached the end of the novel, I myself did not know how my main character Lizzie would end it all. The journey of writing Wench was probably as emotional for me as it has been for the readers who have e-mailed me about their captivating reading experiences of it.

I know that your book club will enjoy discussing this book because it raises so many questions about love and survival, race and gender, motherhood and sisterhood. Although I began with many questions of my own, I ended with even more. Rather than try to answer them, I left them for the reader to decide. I hope you enjoy my heartfelt interest in this historical narrative, one filled with everyday heroic acts.