Wow, wow, wow. Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson is historical fiction gold. This story has so much heartbreak that, at times, I wasn't sure if I could make it through. But the story Johnson crafted is an important one to tell and a story that Black women actually lived in the 1800s. I could not put this book down and it ranks up there as one of my favorite reads of the year.
Pheby Delores Brown is an enslaved woman who was born and raised on a plantation where she is promised freedom when she turns eighteen, but things change quickly when the mistress of the house sends Pheby to slave traders. She ends up on the notorious Devil's Half Acre that houses thousands of slave prisoners. Pheby is groomed by the jail owner and becomes his mistress. Soon she learns that the man she knows is not someone who can be trusted and he might be the cruelest person she has ever come across. She endures unthinkable tragedies, but gives up everything to save the ones she loves. Yellow Wife is a work of historical fiction, but is inspired by the story of Mary Lumpkin and Lumpkin's jail in Richmond, Virginia.
This is not an easy read and I highly recommend you read the content warnings if you want to be aware of what to expect. There are extremely graphic depictions of slavery and torture. Some scenes were incredibly hard to read and made me do a double take, but they are also accurate of the times and the hardships that enslaved Black people endured.
Pheby is the epitome of resilience and will endure anything to help the ones she loves. Despite the enslavement Pheby was born into, she maintains hope for a better future. While, this hope barely glimmers at some points, the fire burns deep in her and drives her to survive. I really loved the character development that Johnson brought to the story. I am a huge fan of character driven stories and Yellow Wife is the perfect combination of character and plot driven. The fact that Yellow Wife is loosely based on real people and a real location, makes it even more searing and haunting. It makes you wonder how many young women ended up in Pheby's shoes, which is a heartbreaking thought.
"I did not know if I should be relieved by the gentleman's kindness or frightened to death."
Content warning: graphic depictions of slavery including whippings and torture, rape, death of child, death of loved one, racist language (use of N word)