Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson

Pheby lives on a plantation in Virginia where her mother has worked hard to teach her daughter to have pride in herself and not see herself as a slave. She’s the favorite of the plantation owner and has been promised her freedom at 18, living a fairly sheltered existence (comparatively). But her life is changed forever one night when the plantation owners wife gets her revenge and Pheby finds herself sent to Devil’s Half Acre.

This book is based on a real person, Mary Lumpkin, who was sent to Devil’s Half Acre at 13 and caught the eye of Robert Lumpkin, who took her as a wife. She was apparently light enough to almost pass as white, which is where the title “Yellow Wife” come from. They had five children and Robert left her everything when she died. Devil’s Half Acre was a prison and slave trading place, and was unimaginably horrifying. Mary, on inheriting the prison, turned it into a place of learning for Black people.

I love that this book resurrects her story from history and introduces her to us. Women like her did not have a voice and their stories are powerful, emotional and important. The author wonders what she was like, how it might have felt being married to (or the mistress of) a man who tortured and sold people of colour while she was a person of colour herself. It’s not like she had much of a choice to refuse this man, and yet, was she able to make smart decisions to stay alive? How did she feel?

Sadeqa Johnson gives us a smart, defiant heroine and takes us into the darkness of the prison. To do this she says she used her imagination, intuition and alignment with Spirit, which I thought was interesting. It reminded me of when Charles Dickens died before finishing Edwin Drood, and a Spiritualist at the time channeled his ending to the book and it sold quite well. This book is set in and is based on people from just that era. It’s also well researched and draws the era for us well. There were no big jarring moments of anachronism for me.

The prison is a real place and what happens there is awful. It’s dark. I’m glad that the book isn’t gratuitous but also isn’t holding back. It tells it like it was. And if you were a slave, it really wasn’t good. I’m glad we’re not glossing over that. The book is Pheby’s story and the relationships she has is with other Black people, and I found this really interesting. Some people don’t like her, some people love her, all the differences in social standing within the jail and her small community are really engrossing. It’s so nice to get this dimensional look at life for people who were so rarely able to tell their own story or be the heroes of their own lives. Here they are well rounded characters and the story stays with them. It’s great.

Because this book is about slavery, I can’t say that I exactly enjoyed reading this. It’s so sad and dark. But it’s really fascinating and the writing is really good. I really liked hearing about Pheby and wondered what she was going to do next. And I found her shifting fortunes so interesting. I’m glad the author has exhumed her story and handed it to us, in fiction form, in this book.

Thank you Simon and Schuster for the ARC of this book for review. All opinions are my own honest thoughts. Yellow Wife is out 12th January 2021.

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