I love a good historical novel, particularly a well-researched novel that stands out both for its writing style and for a unique story that doesn’t feel regurgitated. While I admittedly gravitate more toward historical fiction with hints of magical realism (Remembrance and Conjure Women from last year being excellent examples), Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife (1/12/2021) was a highly anticipated read for me. I was absolutely floored when Simon & Schuster sent this gorgeous ARC several months ago, and I’d been waiting for the perfect time to savor it. And savor it I did.
Despite being a slave, Pheby Delores Brown was born into a world that treated her quite a bit differently than it did the darker slaves that called the plantation home. The cherished mulatto and the daughter of a highly respected medicine woman, she was consistently reminded that she was descended from Cameroon royalty and a slave in name only. The Master’s sister doted on her, teaching her to play the piano and read – treating her more like a beloved niece than a house slave. The Master was also a bit smitten with the beautiful girl. He promised her and her mother that he would give her freedom when she turned eighteen. Once free, she could go North and further her education.
But the Master’s wife isn’t exactly keen on Pheby or her beautiful mother. Armed with power and jealousy, Missus Delphina snatches the dream and breaks the promises made by her husband; Pheby is taken to Devil’s Half Acre, a notorious slave jail in Richmond, to be sold. There, her delicate upbringing and light skin catch the eye of the Jailer and life pivots yet again. While she is treated much differently than many others who pass through Devil’s Half Acre, Pheby remains a slave and her existence (and happiness) is subject to the whims of a white man known as “Devil” and “Bully.”
Based loosely on historical events, Yellow Wife is about the parts of life that are neither black nor white, neither right nor wrong. It’s about a shared history and the contradictions of human nature. More importantly, it’s about survival, family, and the choices we make.
Read this book.