Instagram really got me good on this one, after constantly seeing this book on my feed at the back end of 2021, beginning of 2022 I thought why not give it a try. Must be gathering traction for a good reason, and if I’m being honest in some ways it disappointed. This week on the blog, we review Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife and let you know how we REALLY feel. Have a read and let us know if you’ve read it and agree or not.
Pheby Delores Brown: educated, daughter of enslaver and enslaved woman
Essex Henry: The love of Pheby’s life and father to her firstborn and only son, Monroe Brown
The Jailer: Code name Pheby uses to refer to the enslaver and jail owner who purchased her, notoriously violent and weather slave hunter/trader, the father of her 4 daughters
Monroe Bell: Pheby’s 1st born son with Essex Henry
The book follows the life and journey of Pheby Delores Bell, a biracial daughter of a enslaved woman and slaver, beautiful, educated and a talented pianist. Promised freedom on her 18th birthday, she endures the wrath of the masters wife, who hates her because of what she represents. She is swiftly sold into one of the most notorious jails in the state and quickly bought by the owner of the jail Rubin Lapier himself. Known for his appetite for violence and his unrelenting aggression, Pheby uses her beauty and his fondness for her to her advantage and finds ways to show kindness to the enslaved people who pass through the jail to be auctioned off.
Stories of hopelessness oozed from our sweat. I could see the despair in my fellow prisoners in the slump of their necks
Break It Down:
I should probably begin by saying that this book is an easy, light read. Though the content is heavy and some scenes had me extremely stressed, it reads like a book to be read as a high school class assignment. It’s quick, short, direct and impactful. The chapters aren’t very long and do not drag on for very long and in some ways I wasn’t a fan of that ( more in the negatives section ), but I suppose it did what it needed to do. What I didn’t really understand with the storyline was the fact that Rubin Lapier is supposed to be one of the most brutal and violent slave owner. I’m many ways it appears he takes pleasure in exacting violence on the enslaved people who passed through his jail. The mere fact of the spectacle and event he made of the whipping of Essex Henry showed just how much he seemed to enjoy it. Saying that, what never seemed to make sense was this same man, never raises a violent had to Pheby? I accept she describes their his nightly thirsting of her as violent and of course it’s not consensual as he is her owner, but in other ways he gives her a far better life than she would have had had she not been sold. His way of punishing her was by using her children or the people he knew she had built a connection with. What he didn’t know was that no matter how much her hurt her this way, it never changed her resolve. That odd balance was difficult to wrap my head around and I just don’t understand how or why he would never be as violent towards her when he constantly found ways to remind her of his superiority over her. He even expressed the fact that she is his one true love, despite the fact that she doesn’t have much say in it and that he literally bought her.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.
I have to also say the storyline of Pheby and Essex being torn apart and him being the highly sought after slave and ultimately the one they make a spectacle of at the Lapier Jail was somewhat predictable and for me it wasn’t the penultimate story. Of course Pheby, her grit, her determination and her sheer stubbornness is the focus of the book- but I don’t know if the storyline of their reunion was important. As Pheby worked as the seamstress who dressed the young women and girls in preparation to be auctioned off, she begins logging their names, ages and their story in a journal she was gifted by her father and slave owner. The author references that this journal gets so large with the number of stories Pheby has recorded, but what never gets mentioned to what happens to those stories? She simply hides them under the floorboards forever? I wished that was explored and something came of her loggings, because it felt important.
I should add that while the deepest part of me would have wanted her and Essex to end up together, the reality of enslavement was ripping families apart. Maybe Pheby’s ultimate sacrifice was giving up her son in order to save/protect him. I did think she was going to escape herself and the fact that she didn’t was a bit strange to me, especially as the author never covers what happened to Pheby after The Jailer realized 3 of his enslaved people disappeared, which I suppose for the reader would offer a type of closure and fill in some of the gaps, more so than what was given.
While I know no two books on slavery are alike and a comparison is probably not fair, my mind couldn’t help but drift to T’nase Coates’ The Water Dancer or to Robert Jones Jr’s The Prophets. The books transported me, in the beauty of the author’s writing, in the imagery; they are such profound books. And while this book is also fiction and also sheds light on slavery, the writing wasn’t inspiring it didn’t take me on a journey, it’s gave the details and then ended chapters. I wished the author indulged the reader more and offered more description to the scenes or developing story. The whole books come across rushed, almost like it was written as short paragraphs stretched in order to make a book.
Despite my frustrations, I still gave this book a 4/5 rating; upon reflection I will update it to a 3/5- I wanted more impact and I felt it missed the mark in that way. I also wished the author wrote more “romantically”.
Would I recommend?
Most definitely I would. It’s not a painful read by any means, it’s like a handful of quick short bites to a meal or better yet an appetizer to the real heavy hitters. Read it.