Yellow Wife Book Review
By Sadeqa Johnson
In first-person narrative we see the world through the enslaved eyes of Pheby Delores Brown. She is biracial—daughter of an enslaved mother and white plantation owner—and when the story opens we learn how this identity has given her an unusual upbringing: the opportunity to learn to read and write (although illegal), learn how to play the piano, and the enjoyment of her father and his sister’s kind attention. Pheby also is in love with an enslaved man on the plantation, Essex, who urges her to join him in his plans to run away. But Pheby declines, naively trusting that she’ll be given her freedom on her eighteenth birthday as her father promised. But when her father is killed in an accident, Pheby’s circumstances abruptly change. Her father’s widow, jealous and angry, sells her. Pheby’s life changes forever. In a shocking reversal, Pheby survives horrific shackled treatment as she’s transported south, deep into enslaved areas. Eventually, she finds herself far from home in Richmond, Virginia, a jail and auction block named Devil’s Half Acre, run by a sadistic slave trader known as the Jailer. The Jailer is attracted to her, and Pheby becomes his “yellow wife.”
This story is gut-wrenching; the slave traders’ torture of men, women and children is horrific and inhuman. But the story withholds sinking entirely into horror because of Pheby’s determination to survive. Her fierce protection for her children, the love she has for Essex, her own tenacity to bear up under wildly dangerous circumstances make the risks she takes all the more harrowing because we can feel what’s at stake. The Jailer’s mercurial personality—his lightning switch from generosity to sadistic cruelty—create such tense drama that the reader is constantly on edge. I stayed up well past midnight several nights in a row to read Pheby’s story. The horrors of slavery need to be acknowledged and I think this book has come at a perfect time as our society reckons with this past. Amazingly, Pheby’s character was based on a true story explained in the author’s note of a heroic enslaved woman, Mary Lumpkin, who lived at Devil’s Half Acre as the mistress of the slave trader and jailer. Yellow Wife honors Mary Lumpkin’s true sacrifice.