Yellow Wife -Sadeqa Johnson

Yellow Wife tells a tale of Pheby Delores Brown, an enslaved woman whose life we follow from a fairly privileged position on a plantation to serving as the concubine of a cruel man who runs a jail/breaking house/auction service for enslaved people in Richmond, Virginia. The novel has been around for awhile now and the reviews already tell those who are interested that this book pulls no punches about slavery in the United States — and this is a good thing. Every act of violence and depravity is central and necessary to the theme of this story and all of us need to face these truths. But read this when you can endure the complete lack of humanity and what it took to treat people as property. This is a totally engaging tale, inspired by some real characters and events but fictionalized so that the differences are not represented as what “really” happened, but as what could have happened. It is incredibly and richly imagined, down to the personalities of Pheby’s eldest son, born of love of a man from her plantation and her daughters, born to the jailor. Every one of us knows that we have made choices in our lives we do not prefer but that are driven by context and circumstances. What Pheby does is sometimes horrifying, but she is a person with no agency and every time she exercises blatant free will, there are increasingly serious consequences that remind her she is under the full authority and will of her owner. As her mother says, she is not to ever be a slave in her mind, but the reality is, she is enslaved and must make every decision and carry out every order accordingly. I listened to that audio version of this book and very much enjoyed the narrator, whose understated manner of reading let us feel the horror from the words alone. Well done!

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