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 eighteenth 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.
I knew that this was not the end of things. If anything, it felt like the beginning, and I did not know if I should be relieved by the gentleman's kindness or frightened to death.
So many books like Yellow Wife tend to take a lighter approach to the horrendous violence which occurred during this era. While Pheby is clearly mistreated, she only witnesses the most horrific abuses rather than experiencing them firsthand. While she lives on the plantation in Charles City, she’s raised as a white child and isn’t treated like a slave until she gets older. I don’t know if this theme, which is so prevalent in historical fiction, is utilised to make the story more palatable for the reader, but it often feels like a forced perspective to help the (white) reader more capable of relating to the protagonist. Pheby’s experience, though captivating, seems unlikely and uncommon, especially with some of the elaborate plans she orchestrates.
Yellow Wife approached a familiar story in a new way. I appreciated the elements of traditional medicine, passed down from mother to daughter, and I would’ve loved even more of this. I don’t think I’ve read about these slave jails and their owners, either – the strange loopholes for mixed-race slaves being selected as mistresses to produce white-passing children was a new perspective. Pheby has so many more privileges than the others around her, but she has to walk a tightrope around a man with wild mood swings and control over whether she lives or dies. Even worse, he has absolute power over her children.
Pheby has a lot of unacceptable behaviour directed towards her and others around her, and it felt strange where she chose to draw the line. She knew she would risk punishment for speaking up, but it felt so arbitrary when she chose to do so – and it ranged from selfish to unnecessary reasons. Her actions did make the story more unrealistic because it seems unlikely that any master would have put up with this behaviour and kept her around.
It seems even more unlikely that Monty wasn’t sold off to teach Pheby her place.
The abrupt ending made me wish Yellow Wife was longer because the story was captivating. While I may have had some problems with the technicalities and the overused tropes in this genre, I liked the unique qualities and definitely found it worth reading.