“Yellow Wife” takes us into America’s dark past, where we meet Pheby Delores Brown, a woman of valor. A woman who loved deeply and fiercely. A woman who was a slave yet managed to keep her dignity. But no matter Pheby’s relatively privileged upbringing in the plantation house where she grew up, being taught to read and play the piano by her master’s sister who was also her aunt; in the end, there was no one left to protect her. Pheby reverted to being nothing more than a possession, a belonging, to be sold at the whim of her owner.
Pheby’s mother Ruth had told her for sixteen years that on her eighteenth birthday her father, the master, would give her the emancipation documents that would set her free, so Pheby’s world was shaken when his wife sold her the day of Pheby’s mother’s funeral. She was taken to a jail with other unwanted slaves to be sold. And now, just in the short time she’s on the cart with other castoff slaves on the way to be sold, we get our first real glimpse into the horrors that were perpetrated in the name of slavery. We learn about the woman on the cart who had just given birth to a stillborn baby and was still pushing out the afterbirth while her baby was thrown into a ditch by the slavers, worthless.
Pheby is lucky and escapes being sold to a whorehouse. Her light complexion and beauty make her valuable. When she refuses to strip as she is put on the block for sale, instead of a whipping or the forced removal of her clothing, a stranger steps up and stops the sale. Rubin Lapier, the Jailer, as she refers to him, is the man who owns the jail and the half-acre upon which the jail, the tavern where the sales take place, and his home are situated. Pheby is safe, at least for the present. But she is leery about what exactly the Jailer will be expecting.
Pheby knows that her father will come for her and rescue her, but when she learns that he has died, she realizes that she can’t count on anyone else to save her. We assume that his death resulted from the same carriage accident that killed her mother. And we come to learn about her mother and her mother’s fierce determination that Pheby not see herself as a slave. In fact, when a teenage Pheby does finally lie with Essex Henry, a slave on her father’s plantation, she knows that her mother would be horrified. She had different expectations for Pheby.
While Pheby is in no danger of losing her life — Lapier passionately desires her — her continued survival and favor in the eyes of her master require her to help him sell slaves. It’s her job at the jail to prepare the female slaves for sale. She uses her sewing skills to dress them, and she provides rouge and adornments to make them more presentable, thus making sure they will fetch top dollar. All the while, Pheby recognizes that she will do anything to protect those she loves. And eventually, when she meets Essex Henry again in unbearable circumstances, she must decide how far she will go to help him.
Johnson’s writing is exquisitely, almost unbearably detailed. She depicts the “Devil’s Half Acre,” as Lapier’s jail is known, and we can picture the bodies of the dead slaves and all but smell their decomposing corpses as they lie in mud and filth. We can imagine the stench coming from the shed where the slaves awaiting auction are kept, lacking even such basic sanitation devices as buckets. We see the degradation that is routine when slaves are forced to stand, naked, in front of buyers. They must squat, open their mouths, or even, in the case of female slaves, go to a private room to be further “examined” by prospective purchasers. Rubin Lapier is a complex character, sincere in his affection for Pheby, yet brutish and brutally sadistic with others.
This story is in many ways a paean to a mother’s love for her children. One of Pheby’s tenets when making important decisions is to think of what her mother would have done for her. Ruth’s love for her was all-encompassing and uncompromising. We also learn about slaves who grew up without ever knowing their mother, and we see that Pheby’s life course is determined by what will benefit her family. It’s difficult to reconcile what Pheby did to aid in the sale of slaves with her own position as a piece of chattel in Lapier’s household. In Johnson’s novel, we see the almost universal truth that to ensure survival and to protect family, we will do almost anything. Almost.
Pheby’s story doesn’t just draw us into the life of a “mulatto” during the time before the Civil War. Of course, her story is engrossing and emotional, but it also gives us insight into the lives of those who might pass for almost white and how their lives weren’t necessarily any better than those whose skin color had not been bleached by generations of rape by white masters. The fact that Pheby’s story is based on the actual life of Mary Lumpkin, and Lumpkin’s jail in Richmond, Virginia, and also includes historical figures who were slave traders with light-skinned wives, make this work of fiction real, powerful, and moving. In fact, even a cursory online search reveals that Johnson carefully relied on historical events when creating her own fictional account of this period of time. The details she included about Pheby, Essex Henry, the other slave traders’ “wives,” and the education of their children up North, are all based on real people and real events. Even small details about abuses and historical events are based on Johnson’s careful research. In the Author’s Note, Johnson provides a partial list of resources she used in writing “Yellow Wife.” That note, too, is well worth reading and absorbing.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.