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.