A striking debut intimately limns a Southern slave’s complicated relationship with her master.
Perkins-Valdez (English/Univ. of Puget Sound) builds a convincing, nuanced portrait of Lizzie, a slave on Nathan Drayle’s Tennessee plantation. Nathan took Lizzie as his mistress (if such a word can be used for the enslaved) as an adolescent; by the age of 16 she had borne him a son and daughter. He shows unguarded favor to Lizzie, moving her into the guestroom across from his wife’s bedroom, teaching her to read and speak like a lady, seeming to need and care for her. In addition, her two light-skinned children are his only offspring. In the summer of 1852 Nathan takes his favored slave Philip and Lizzie to Tawawa House, an Ohio resort where Southern men bring their slave women. Ohio is a revelation to Lizzie. Free black men and women are employed at the hotel, and Lizzie sees a nearby resort catering to well-to-do African-Americans. For Lizzie and the other slaves she befriends that summer, this seems like the world turned upside down. The Southern men spend much of their time hunting, leaving Lizzie the opportunity to imagine a life away from slavery with Sweet (pregnant and doomed), Reenie (defeated by her master, who is also her white half-brother) and Mawu (redheaded, fierce and possessing voodoo charms). They meet Glory, an abolitionist Quaker who is the first white woman to speak to Lizzie as an equal. Mawu, Reenie and Philip talk of escaping, but Lizzie, fearing the slave catchers might hurt them, tells Nathan of their plan. The next summer, barely forgiven by the others for her betrayal, Lizzie begins to wonder why she loves Nathan, her protector and tormentor since childhood. This wondering is her first step toward freedom, and the potential of what the next summer may bring.
Compelling and unsentimental.