Sadeqa Johnson's new novel, Yellow Wife, is a harrowing tale of the life of an enslaved woman in Virginia, beginning in the 1850s. A challenging read but beautifully told, this thought-provoking page-turner is also surprisingly uplifting. And at its core, Yellow Wife is also a story of motherhood and the sacrifices a mother will make to protect her children — no matter how those babies come into the world.
When the story begins, Johnson's protagonist Pheby Delores Brown is 17 and lives at the Bell Plantation. She and her mother, Ruth, a well-regarded healer, are inseparable and treated "special" by the plantation owner, Jacob Bell. Their elevated status is due in part to her mother's rape by Master Jacob and her ongoing forced sexual encounters with him. With no options but to do as she is told, Ruth uses his lust to solicit a promise — he will set Pheby free on her 18th birthday.
Pheby was also a favorite of Master Jacob's late sister, Miss Sally, who taught her to play piano, read and write, and learn several skills not routinely given the enslaved. On top of that, Pheby is mulatto, with "yellow skin" and long wavy hair — a beauty that draws attention from many, especially white slave owners. And at 17, anticipating her freedom within the year, she is in love with Essex Henry, an enslaved young man who has his own plans to escape. Needless to say, things don't go as Pheby had hoped.
Pheby changes and grows as she is bombarded by unexpected deaths, betrayal, and senseless cruelty. From the whims of Missus Delphina, the spiteful wife of Master Jacob, to the heartless plantation overseer, Snitch, to a nightmarish driver named Reade, Pheby is forced to navigate tragedy after tragedy. These early rocks in the road, however, prepare her for the mountain she faces when she ends up in the infamous slave jail known as the Devil's Half Acre, and meets its owner, Rubin Lapier, or as Pheby calls him — the Jailer.
The novel is gut-wrenching, and Johnson doesn't shy away from the atrocities endured by those enslaved. Still, she's created multi-faceted characters with a wide range of experiences and emotions. They care deeply for their children, friends, and family. They dance, sing, love, and celebrate. There is honor in Pheby's stamina, courage, and resilience, traits that consistently elevate this story of a young girl growing into a determined woman, despite the desperation of her environment. That growth shows itself particularly in Pheby's compassion for strangers, specifically "fancy" women; the care she shows them is personal, long-lasting, and essential.
Pheby Delores Brown is a fictional character, but she was inspired by a real-life figure, Mary Lumpkin, the enslaved concubine of Robert Lumpkin. He was a notorious white slave trader who owned and managed the aptly dubbed Devil's Half Acre — also a real place, part of a slave-trading post Lumpkin founded in 1840, a compound that included a guesthouse and barroom and an auction block. As Johnson writes in her author's note, the jail was an infamous holding pen and "breaking center" for more than 300,000 enslaved people from 1844 to 1865.
History has certainly informed Johnson's choices for her story about Pheby and her life at Devil's Half Acre. But like all captivating, truly immersive historical fiction, what draws the reader and keeps the pages turning is the main characters.
I particularly enjoyed how Pheby's day-to-day life and its limitations — her routine, if you will — became just as instrumental to the story's drama as its big moments of conflict or tragedy. From sewing to fixing a meal, playing with her children, and being with Essex Henry — the man she loves — these moments of simple pleasures become gigantic. When the horror comes, it is all the more transformative because of what is lost and what will never be for the enslaved.
And yet, this is not a wholly depressing novel. Yes, there is great sadness, but it also speaks lovingly of motherhood. And this is where Johnson's story transcends, by capturing Pheby's joy and the splendor she finds in her existence through her children. When you reach the end of the novel, you are still rooting for Pheby and her family, and the choices they make to survive feel well-earned.
Yellow Wife doesn't pull any punches in telling its story about this painful period in American history. However, with a central character who is more than up to the task, this thought-provoking, well-paced tale brims with heart and intelligence.
Denny S. Bryce writes historical fiction. Her first novel, Wild Women and the Blues, is coming this year.