A horrifying but ultimately moving story anchored by a complex narrator.

YELLOW WIFE

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.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982149-10-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Nov. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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A heartfelt but schematic wartime tear-jerker.

ETERNAL

Quite a change from Scottoline’s bestselling contemporary thrillers: an ambitious, deeply researched historical account of three Roman families caught in the meltdown of Fascist Italy.

May 1937 finds Alessandro Simone and Marco Terrizzi competing for the favors of Elisabetta D’Orfeo, an aspiring journalist and cat lover who waits tables at Casa Servano, the well-regarded Trastevere restaurant owned by Giuseppina Servano, widely known as Nonna. Since Sandro’s father, Massimo Simone, is a Jewish tax lawyer who strongly supports Mussolini and Marco’s father, Giuseppe Terrizzi, is a former cyclist who proudly styles himself a Fascist of the First Hour, there’s plenty of potential for ethnic, religious, and political conflicts both between and within the leading characters, and despite the widespread conviction that Mussolini’s pre-Hitler brand of fascism will never turn against the Jews, the coming of the war flushes all these conflicts out. After Marco’s brother Aldo is killed when he joins a group of anti-fascist saboteurs, Marco, groomed by Commendatore Romano Buonacorso for a rapid rise to power, begins to have second thoughts. Sandro, his dreams of academic stardom trashed by his religion, is more open in his opposition to Il Duce. The real calamities, however, follow the German invasion of Italy, which kicks off several painful rounds of increasingly severe anti-Jewish legislation, expropriation, extortion, and finally rastrellamento, the wholesale roundup of Italian Jews to be shipped off to destinations readers will know all too well. Through it all, Scottoline struggles mightily to bring her sorely tried characters alive through their love for each other, but they mostly remain pawns of history who believe till the end that “the Vatican will intervene, of course.”

A heartfelt but schematic wartime tear-jerker.

Pub Date: March 23, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-525-53976-6

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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