Book Review: Yellow Wife

Genre: Historical fiction (US Civil War time period)

Stars: 4-1/2 out of 5

Synopsis from Goodreads: In the tradition of Wench and Twelve Years a Slave, this harrowing story follows an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia. Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Brown was promised her freedom on her eighteenth birthday. But when her birthday finally comes around, instead of the idyllic life she was hoping for with her true love, she finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half-Acre, a jail where slaves are broken, tortured, and sold every day. Forced to become the mistress of the brutal man who owns the jail, Pheby faces the ultimate sacrifice to protect her heart in this powerful, thrilling story of one slave’s fight for freedom.

I was intrigued by this book, not only because of what sounded like a compelling story but also because I went to high school in a Richmond suburb, went to college in Williamsburg and wrote my master’s thesis on taverns in Richmond in the late 18th/early 19th century, just before this book takes place. I also worked for a social history museum in downtown Richmond, not far from the setting of the slave jail in this book. The author has done an extensive amount of research into the time period and the setting, and that is brought to life in great detail. The book is based on a real person, Mary Lumpkin, who was the Black mistress/common law wife (interracial marriage was illegal in this time period) of a white man who owned a slave auction house in Richmond in the decades before the Civil War, although the character of Pheby Brown is a somewhat fictionalized version of Mary.

Despite being a relatively short book (228 pages), this one packs a LOT into those pages. There are also many triggers associated with this book including racism (which I think is obvious), to violence and sadism, abuse (physical and mental), and rape. The bright spot in this book is the main character, Pheby, who despite being a fairly young and sheltered woman (in as much as she could be sheltered as a half-Black person in this society) in the beginning of the book, grows into a strong woman who endured unspeakable things to try to protect herself and her children. It is a sad and difficult chronicle of slavery in the US, and if you had any thoughts of even a somewhat happy life for anyone enslaved, this book will quickly rid you of those. The constant tug of wanting to try to free herself and not being able to leave an abusive, crushingly stressful situation with her owner because she is in fear for the lives of her children with this man, is heartbreaking and makes you wonder how anyone survived being a slave.

I’m glad I read this book for the important history it presents, and the unflinching look at a system which was completely dehumanizing. It is not an easy book but one worth reading to better understand our history here in the US, and how that history has influenced race relations in the ensuing centuries.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Yellow Wife

  1. This one sounds both hard and important. There’s so much from that era which was whitewashed in schools (and I say this as someone who went to school in California!) and it’s really critical that we look at the truth behind the history, even if we do so via historical fiction. Thank you for this review.

    1. Yes to all of that. My friend, Katie, who I read this one with and I discussed it for our book club last night on the phone. We did some reading about the real people this book was inspired by and one big takeaway for both of us was how staggering the sheer numbers of people moved through this holding pen/jail were. And it certainly wasn’t something we learned in school at any level. But such an important part of the story of the country – not a good part but an important one IMHO.

      1. I learned about either this jail or one like it by reading Tristan Strong Keeps Punching earlier this year. It’s a middle grade contemporary fantasy (and book 3 in a trilogy) but it works a lot of history in there, too.

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