Even after closing the final chapter of Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson, I find myself continually revisiting Pheby Delores Brown’s story in my mind. The intensity of emotions displayed throughout the pages of this historical fiction book caught my heart right from its opening pages.
Growing up on a plantation as the daughter of the estate’s medicine woman, Pheby inherited a sense of confidence and self-worth that had been stripped from the other working slaves. Pheby learned to read, mastered the piano, and—most important—was promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday. But after the plantation master and Pheby’s mother were caught in an accident, Pheby’s entire life was derailed. Her fate was ultimately left to Master Jacob’s cruel wife, Missus Delphina, who was more than ready to rid the plantation of her husband’s favored slave. In the pit of Pheby’s heartache, Missus Delphina sent her away to the most infamous slave jail in Virginia, Devil’s Half Acre.
Reading about the torture and abuse that slaves were subjected to in the jail and during auctions was extraordinarily heartbreaking. If readers take nothing else from this story, they will surely be appalled by the lack of humanity displayed within the country during the 1850s. This realization struck hardest for me. Though we have all learned about America’s legacy of slavery, interweaving the narrative of that time period into a beautifully written historical novel brings a deeper sense of painful comprehension.
But amid all the terror and torture, Pheby was able to sustain her courage—an incredibly inspiring feat. Every decision she made was truly a matter of survival. Pheby is poised, demands respect, and knows her worth despite the harrowing laws of the time. Enduring heartbreak after heartbreak, her steadfast spirit does not falter; and the courage it must have taken to remain strong in her circumstances is unimaginable.
Knowing in the back of my mind that Pheby’s story was based off a true “yellow wife” from history made the novel that much more profound. I urge people to read this book for the deep emotion evoked so brilliantly through Sadeqa Johnson’s writing, but more so I urge people to read Yellow Wife for the truth. Yellow Wife is a story of resilience and incomprehensible strength in the face of genuine evil that occurred across our country less than two centuries ago. The vicious, inhuman acts and the tragic display of human ownership were real. But among all that, the strength during that time was real as well, and that same strength, exuding through these particular characters, is absolutely inspiring. I thank Sadeqa for telling such a necessary story in a way that brought both sickening horror and poignant enlightenment all wrapped into one entrancing life’s journey.
Book Club Favorites selected Yellow Wife as their February book club pick! Tune in to their LIVE discussion on February 25 at 3 PM EST. And be sure to check out their event page for more details.