An utterly convincing fictional memoir of Pheby Delores Brown, a mulatto slave sharing her life story from her youth on. As a young slave, Pheby (and her mother) are fairly well treated by their owner on a plantation near Charles City, Virginia. Her mother is a skilled weaver and dispenser of basic medicine for those enslaved. And they both have been taught to read and write by the sister of their owner, Master James.
Almost an unheard of action in the pre-War U.S.! Very few slave owners in the North freed their slaves, and in the South some states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaban, and Maryland eventually instituted laws against freeing slaves.
As is so often reminded us by historians, 12 U.S. presidents owned slaves in their lifetimes. And 8 even owned slaves while president. Of the first 12 presidents, only 2 opposed slavery! George Washington never freed his slaves while he was alive, though did free them in his will. Jefferson never freed his slaves, not even his long-term Black concubine, Sally Hemmings!
Many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves including Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Patrick Henry (who made the famous statement, "Give me liberty or give me death;" but of course, he only meant those words for white arisotcratic Americans who were being penalized by the British Government.
In this suspenseful novle, the ‘nice’ owner’s spinster sister treats Pheby almost like a niece or grandchild!
The sister not only spends much quality time with her, teaching Pheby to play the piano splendidly well, and even to read! Beginning in 1831, eventually all states with slaves, except for Maryland and Tennessee, prohibited owners to do.
These characters, especially Pheby and her later vicious owner, Marse Jacob Laupier, are vividly real and the story so suspenseful that I admit at one point I skipped ahead to the end because I couldn’t wait to hear what happened to Pheby.
She and the others became so real to me. And still are. They seem like individuals who’ve I’ve known in real life, not fictional characters in a book.
Plot and theme details below
One reason this may be so is because Yellow Wife is based upon actual individuals and events, accurate historical fiction at its best. Pheby and Marse Laupier are based up Robert Lumpkin (and his slave “yellow wife” meaning almost white in color) who ran the actual notorious Lumpkin Jail in Richmond, Virginia.
Another intriguing comparison is to Thomas Jefferson and his many-year’d concubine relationship with Sally Hemmings where she birthed 6 children by Jefferson, 4 of whom grew to adulthood and were able to pass for white, and also who escaped from enslavement. Tragically, though in the case of Jefferson, unlike Lumpkin, he never married Sally.
Another very good point about the book are its in depth themes. Yellow Wife shows many moral ironies of the institution of slavery including the extreme differences (such as the kindly owner, James and his sister versus the sociopathic owners of Richmond).
There is the deep theme of the reality of evil versus good, the power of music and literature (with references to other books dealing with similar tragic plots and similar themes—Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, etc.)
And, amazingly, in contrast to most secular fiction, Johnson includes spiritual and religious themes! At first, I thought she was just giving details of the slaves’ Christian beliefs and actions as part of the history and setting, but later in the novel she emphasizes the realness of prayer, singing, and good actions.
Johnson also mostly avoids promoting immoral actions such as revenge, though at one point Pheby does utter a detailed curse to the cruel wife of her 'nice'first owner.
And Johnson avoids the constant use of obscenities and gross details of dark horror that are common in plenty of modern literature. Her descriptions of sexual relations are graphic enough to be convincing—and inspiring or despairing—but not obscene like so many other writers of the present.
About the only part of Yellow Wife that greatly disappoints is the rushed ending, where Laupier unexpectedly—and unbelievably--changes from the sociopathic, cruel, vicious jail owner who even had one young pregnant slave beaten so harshly that her infant aborts and is expelled in the midst of the beating.
And when Pheby is caught reading a book of his, Oliver Twist, Laupier is so very upset and angry that he viciously rapes her, causing physical harm to her private parts! And he threatens to sell off their children and her older son, Monroe if she teaches any of them to read!
YET only shortly later in the story toward the end, when Pheby sends a secret letter to have abolitionists come and help free Essex, her lover and the father of Monroe, from Laupier’s jail, Marse Laupier hardly reacts at all!
And incredulously, rather than beat her senseless and torture and murder Essex, he asks apprehensively of Pheby, “Do you love him?”
Ridiculous. What a poor ending.
The only penalties that the Marse imposes on Pheby is to send her son away for a few weeks, and their daughters away on a trip, and he prohibits Pheby from going to market and from church for a few weeks!
I suppose it’s possible that Laupier could have changed toward Pheby like the real Lumpkin did toward his Mary, but there are no transition episodes showing him becoming less vicious or becoming more civil and more truly caring in a normal way.
And I would have also liked to not see a total skipping of the war, with only a couple of letters between mother and one daughter after the war as the climatic ending.
Oh well, I guess all my strong reactions—both positive and negative—show how deeply the novel has affected me. Maybe, some day I will read the actual history of the Richmond Jail. Currently, I am reading a biography of Jefferson Davis and a history of the War.
Last night, I was also thinking of various questions I had about the individuals in the story that I wanted to know—a sure sign of how powerful the book is!—but can’t think of them now. Maybe I will remember later.
Yellow Wife would make a great movie!
“Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation, belonging to neither world.
She’d been promised freedom on her 18th birthday, but instead of the idyllic life she imagined with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is forced to leave the only home she has ever known. She unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.”