Friday 15 October 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Yellow Wife, Sadeqa Johnson (2021)

It’s hard to read historical fiction set in the American South in the nineteenth century, especially if the novel’s protagonist begins life enslaved and faces a series of horrific trials, as she struggles to win her own freedom and the freedom of her children. 

Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife (2021) doesn’t shy away from the horrors of existence on a plantation and then in a jail in Virginia, as she tells the story of the fictional Pheby Delores Brown. Pheby may be a work of Johnson’s imagination, but her experiences mirror many real histories. Her mother is an enslaved Black woman, and her father a white slave owner. Her “yellow” skin is a curse more than it’s a blessing, as she’s repeatedly objectified and abused. 

Sold as a punishment for her true love’s escape, plantation-born Pheby finds herself at the Devil’s Half Acre, a jail and trading post in Richmond, and soon draws the attention of the jail master—i.e. the “devil” himself. Selected for her looks, Pheby is in a morally difficult position. She has more creature comforts than the many enslaved people who pass through the door and some modicum of power, but her rapist “husband” still holds her life, and the lives of her increasing number of children, including her Black son, in his hands. Johnson does a good job of giving Pheby agency throughout the novel, despite the difficulties of her position, crafting a character we can root for and believe in.

The novel began for me on familiar ground—the plantation setting reminiscent of other novels I’ve reviewed here, for instance Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (2014). But the descriptions of the Richmond jail, which is based closely on historical record, were fascinating and uncovered a new chapter of American history for me. No spoilers here, but I also enjoyed the realism of the ending and the different relationships Pheby’s “white” children have with their mixed heritage—this struck the right chord and felt like the perfect note to end on. I wish Johnson had dived even more into Pheby’s relationship with her own Blackness. Has she internalized any colorism? How does she relate differently to each of her children?

Overall, this is a fast read, which manages to entertain, while dealing deftly with horrific topics and pulling us into America’s divided past. I’d recommend it. 

Which nineteenth-century set, twenty-first century written novel would you like me to review next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Leave suggestions here, on Facebook, on Instagram or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and e-book. And make sure you subscribe to my writerly newsletter below.

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