Three black slave women—Lizzie, Sweet and Reenie—have achieved a certain social status in the complex world of American antebellum plantation society: they are “mistresses” of their owners, with attitudes toward them ranging from deep hatred to what verges on love. They meet yearly in the free state of Ohio at the summer resort Tawawa House. One year a spirited and angry newcomer who calls herself Mawu joins them. She wants her freedom and plants seeds in the others, who begin to question their own acceptance of their deeply compromised lives.

Free black men and women are employed at the hotel. There is even a nearby resort for more prosperous blacks. In the summer of 1852, the summer friends and a trusted slave, Philip, meet a Quaker woman and talk together about escaping. Lizzie betrays them, with disastrous results. The middle of the novel looks back on Lizzie’s life and the circumstances that brought her and her two children into the ever-changing dynamic of her slaveholder’s household. The final third sends her back to Ohio to face the possibility of her own freedom one last time.

The complex and tragic lives of these “wenches” of their masters is well-explored. Although only Lizzie is brought to life in the fullest sense, the others are intriguing, even in their mystery. The unfortunate cover art places the setting in a later time period, and the writing sometimes has clarity problems that a better edit may have helped. But the compelling story soars above its limitations, illuminating a deeply sad and flawed part of America’s history.

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