book review, historical fiction, history

Review: Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson


Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson follows Phebe Delores Brown, the child of an enslaved woman and the master of their plantation. Phebe has avoided the harsh field toil by weaving and sewing alongside her mother on the Bell Plantation in Charles City, Virginia. Her mother is a strong influence on her life–teaching her healing practices and to instill within her that she can never truly be enslaved. What’s more, she lives her life under the assumption and hope that the plantation owner (and her biological father) will give her freedom papers on her 18th birthday.

Phebe’s hope is fleeting after the death of the plantation owner, as she is left to his cruel and vengeful wife. Meanwhile, Phebe finds solace in Essex Henry, who plans his escape and begs Phebe to come with him. She holds out hope, however, only to be sold by the plantation owner’s wife.

What is set into motion is the heart of Phebe’s story of survival at all costs. Sadeqa Johnson writes in the author’s note that she was inspired to create this story after visiting a former jail in Richmond, VA. The owner of the jail was a white man who was married to bi-racial woman with whom he had children. Johnson goes on to explain that she was deeply moved by the spirits of the enslaved people who had passed through the jail.

Phebe must walk the fine line of her survival and the safety of her children, all of which is balanced upon the whim and temper of the jail owner. Just as her mother sacrificed all for her, so must Phebe for her children. Yellow Wife takes the reader to the disturbing depths of the slave trade and the haunting reality enslaved people endured.

Reading novels with this subject matter is no doubt uncomfortable, but we must also rememeber that not all stories about people of color need be “trauma porn.” That said, Sadeqa Johnson’s creation of this story is genuine and I believe she wanted to tell the stories of the voiceless–of those she felt the presence of within those jail grounds.