Because I Knew the Place, I Felt the Pain

We visited the little town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, when my husband Mark was a late-in-life law student at Ohio Northern University.  A big attraction was Young’s Jersey Dairy Farm, which was kind of a Disneyland of cattle,–rides and tours and miniature golf–with a wonderful restaurant at its center.

We had cheeseburgers and milkshakes at the restaurant, and then we went out to see the beautiful, liquid-eyed Jersey cows.

“Be careful,” Mark teased Jim, who was 11 or so at the time.  “They can smell their cousin Charlie on your breath.”

For Jim, it may have been the first visceral connection between his meat and its source, a connection which he’d made intellectually, but hadn’t felt in a real and confrontational way: ie, The burger I just ate used to have huge brown eyes.  We left shortly afterward, wandered the small town nearby, looking at locally sourced pottery in a garden store, browsing the eclectic offerings of a couple of bookstores.  We gathered free local newspapers, were saddened to read that a young man had gone missing in the local state park, noted the presence of a couple of respected colleges, Antioch and Wilberforce.

And went home to Ada, where the intensity of law school life, of working, of trying to help a struggling young boy find his niche in a world that seemed increasingly foreign.  We haven’t been back to the Yellow Springs area since.

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Last week I read Dolen Perkin-Valdez’s Wench, and was drawn in, not just by the compelling narrative, but by the compelling setting–which was about three miles from Xenia, Ohio, very near to Yellow Springs.  The place was Tawawa Springs, which, Wikipedia notes, was a Native American term for ‘clear or golden water.’  There were hot springs in the area–hence the name Yellow Springs–and people felt the waters were curative.

In the 1800’s, a resort industry grew up around the springs, and a sprawling facility–hotel, restaurant, cottages, on 50 some acres–catered to wealthy vacationers.  Some of those were Southern plantation owners, and they came, generally, not with their wives and legitimate children, but with their Black slave mistresses, and sometimes, with their bi-racial children.

This is the setting for Wench, Perkins-Valdez’s story of Lizzie, a slave who is mistress to her master, who has two beautiful children by him, who reads and writes, who struggles with issues of loyalty and love, and who longs for something more. The longing solidifies into a yearning to be free–if she can’t achieve that state for herself, Lizzie fiercely wants it for her children.

The narrative centers on Lizzie and three other enslaved women and their small circle of friends at Tawawa Springs.  They hail from different plantations in different states, but summers bring them together.  Reenie’s master allows the hotel manager to ‘have’ Reenie; Sweet’s children die when she is away from them,–and Sweet soon follows; Mawu cannot accept the yoke she’s been saddled with, and flies close to the flame; and Lizzie starts out with a true belief in human goodness and learns the vagaries of a world that doesn’t value that quality.

Not much of a happy ending in this story, although we can hope that Reenie truly did make it to freedom.

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The creation of Wilberforce University may have been the real happy ending. The college still stands, associated with the African Methodist Church, one of its founders.  When it opened in 1856–on the site of Tawawa Springs, the former resort,–some of its first students were the biracial offspring of master-slave liaisons.  Wilberforce sheltered slaves seeking freedom before the Civil War, and it has a long history of distinguished and mark-making graduates.

A source I read on the Internet notes that this area and several cities scattered throughout Ohio were sites on the Underground Railroad, and home to communities of free Black citizens during the shame of the slavery years.  My own city is one of the towns cited, and this makes me want to research and learn about my adopted home town and its history, pre-1860’s.

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So. Environment is important in Wench–the external environment, the irony of enslaved women vacationing with their wealthy masters on free ground. Their lack of freedom is thrown into stark relief.  And because I have been to that place, because it felt like someplace I had lived, the reality of the fiction–if that makes sense at all–struck me much more forcibly.

And the language is important too.  The word ‘wench’ has its own connotations.  I remember, when I was in high school, the boys in our tight group of friends decided it was fun to call the girls wenches.  I worked at a supermarket deli; my boyfriend delighted in calling me his ‘deli wench.’ It seemed cute and archaic until, geeky future English teacher that I was, I decided to look the word up.

Webster’s told me a wench was a peasant girl, a servant, or a wanton woman.  When the word was turned into a verb–ie, He went wenching,–its meaning became this: To consort with prostitutes.

I asked my boyfriend to stop calling me a wench. He protested that it was a term of endearment.

I was not endeared.

In all of its meanings, though, it is the perfect title for Perkin-Valdez’s book–apt and imbued with sadness and despair.

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