Johnson’s rich latest (after And Then There Was Me) follows a mixed-race young woman, enslaved by her father, through a series of betrayals and abuses. Pheby Brown has been promised her emancipation at 18 by her father, Jacob Bell, the white owner of a plantation in Charles City, Va. Pheby chooses to remain at the Bell plantation because of Jacob’s promise, even after her lover, Essex, escapes to the north in 1850, when she is 17. After a carriage accident kills Pheby’s mother and injures Jacob, Pheby is at the mercy of Jacob’s vindictive, mean-spirited wife, Delphina, who sells Pheby to jailer Rubin Lapier. At the jail, Pheby gives birth to Essex’s son, Monroe, and afterwards Rubin coerces Pheby to sleep with him in exchange for keeping Monroe. As the years pass, Pheby bears four of Rubin’s daughters. When Essex is captured and ends up at the jail in 1857, Pheby plots to get him and Monroe to freedom. While some scenes feel a bit melodramatic, the author brilliantly depicts Pheby’s maternal drive to create a better life for all of her children despite a series of brutally difficult compromises. Despite the occasional creaky plot turns, Johnson achieves a powerful, unflinching account of determination in the face of oppression. Agents: Cherise Fisher and Wendy Sherman, Wendy Sherman Asso. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"Seldom do I get to enjoy a novel so wholly engrossing, so exquisitely researched, so timely. Sadeqa Johnson has brought a fresh telling to a story we think we already know, making it beautifully relatable and human. Riveting and suspenseful, I highly recommend this novel."--Kathleen Grissom New York Times Best selling author of Glory Over Everything and The Kitchen House
“Yellow Wife is a heartbreaking stunner of a book. Johnson deftly creates a cast of characters based on real historical figures and events that transport the reader to the horrors of the slave trade of the pre-war South. Exquisitely researched and richly crafted. I was utterly riveted.” Aimie K. Runyan, internationally bestselling author of Daughters of the Night Sky and Across the Winding River
“A fully immersive, intricately crafted story inspired by the pages of history. In Pheby, Sadeqa Johnson has created a woman whose struggle to survive and to protect the ones she loves will have readers turning the pages as fast as their fingers can fly. Simply enthralling.” – Lisa Wingate, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of Before We Were Yours and The Book of Lost Friends.
"Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson is a page-turner of a novel that is utterly transporting. Johnson's rich historical detail and enchanting prose sucked me into another world from the very first page. The book is a reminder that the inner lives of black women are as complicated as they are fascinating and make for some of the most affecting literature in American history. I loved it." -Attica Locke, author of Bluebird, Bluebird
"Johnson is unsparing in her depiction of the physical, psychological, and spiritual damages wrought by slavery and realistic in her portrayal of the heroism of Pheby and others in resisting it — they cannot change the world, but they do what they can, and sometimes that’s extraordinary... [an] ultimately moving story anchored by a complex narrator." Kirkus, Starred Review
"...This well-researched and intensely moving [novel]...is perfect for fans of historical fiction with strong female characters such as The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom and Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Book clubs looking for #OwnVoices authors will be powerfully impressed by this story of a lesser-known aspect of the history of slavery in the American South." Library Journal, Starred Review
"Johnson achieves a powerful, unflinching account of determination in the face of oppression."Publishers Weekly
“Johnson writes with imagery so vivid that it's impossible to look away, even during gut-wrenching moments. Readers will be engulfed in captivating suspense..." BOOKLIST
In this emotionally wrenching pre-Civil War story, Pheby Delores Brown, born a house slave on a Virginia plantation, is the biracial child (then referred to as "high yellow") of a proud African mother and fathered by their white owner. Before her mother's dream for her of freedom and education when she came of age—as promised by her slave-owning father—can be realized, the "spoiled" 16-year-old Pheby becomes a target of the plantation owner's jealous wife, and is sent to a notorious jail where the enslaved are broken and tortured. She becomes the "yellow wife" of the disreputable white jail owner. Pheby lives in fear of her sadistic husband, and her dreams of freedom and protecting those she loves grow more desperate with the birth of each child, and the passing years.VERDICT This well-researched and intensely moving fifth novel by Johnson (And Then There Was Me) is perfect for fans of historical fiction with strong female characters such as The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom and Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Book clubs looking for #OwnVoices authors will be powerfully impressed by this story of a lesser-known aspect of the history of slavery in the American South.—Laurie Cavanaugh, Thayer P.L., Braintree, MA
An enslaved young woman’s experiences come wrenchingly alive in this vivid historical novel.
Pheby Delores Brown, the novel’s narrator, was born on a Virginia plantation to its owner, Jacob Bell, and Ruth, one of the women enslaved there. As a child, Pheby was sheltered from much of the harshness of slavery, even taught to play the piano and to read, although the latter is against the law. Pheby is almost 18—the age at which Jacob has promised to free her—when the book opens in 1850. But Jacob has married a younger wife, Delphina, who resents Ruth and Pheby bitterly. When Jacob takes Ruth on a trip, Delphina sells Pheby to a slave trader. Roped into a coffle with dozens of other enslaved people for the long walk to Richmond, she is thrust into a nightmare of brutal, dehumanizing treatment. In Richmond, at a notorious slave trading center called the Jail, light-skinned, pretty Pheby is marked for sale as a “fancy girl.” But Rubin Lapier, the White man who owns the Jail, claims her for himself even though she is pregnant with the son of Essex Henry, a stable hand at the Bell plantation, now a runaway. Although Richmond’s White elite get their wealth from slaveholding, traders like Lapier are considered disreputable enough that White women will not marry them. Pheby becomes his “yellow wife,” running his household and bearing him five children. Johnson’s first-person narration gives the reader a window into the terrible burden of doubleness that Pheby carries, always performing submission to keep herself and her children safe, painfully aware that behind Lapier’s usually courteous treatment of her is a ruthless sadism. As time passes, she realizes she must find a way to send her Black son, Monroe, to freedom before Lapier sells him (or worse) in some fit of anger, and her life becomes much more dangerous. Johnson is unsparing in her depiction of the physical, psychological, and spiritual damages wrought by slavery and realistic in her portrayal of the heroism of Pheby and others in resisting it—they cannot change the world, but they do what they can, and sometimes that’s extraordinary.
A horrifying but ultimately moving story anchored by a complex narrator.