The House of Eve (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 7) is the fifth novel by Sadeqa Johnson and her second work of historical fiction, after Yellow Wife, the story of an enslaved woman who was forced to bear her enslaver’s children. House of Eve is set in the 1940s and ’50s and tells the stories of Ruby and Eleanor, two young Black women who both become pregnant outside marriage and see their lives go in very different directions. This week the novel was selected by Reese Witherspoon as the February pick for her popular book club.
Speaking over Zoom from her home in Richmond, Virginia, in late January, Johnson said she was preparing for a six-week tour to promote the new novel: “I’m eating all the plant-based food, I’m lifting weights, I’m drinking lots of water. I’m training for the book tour.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your first three novels had contemporary settings. With Yellow Wife and now The House of Eve, you’re writing historical fiction. What moved you to make that change?
We moved to Richmond in 2015. I was standing in our kitchen in New Jersey one day and I heard a voice that said, Move. We were already planning a move, but the voice wasn’t like, move down the street. It meant move. By June 2015 we had moved our three children, changed our lives, and settled into a new house in Richmond. I was thinking, why am I here?
Then we had some friends come to visit from New Jersey, and someone suggested we take them to the Richmond Slave Trail. While we were on the Richmond Slave Trail, I heard the story of Mary Lumpkin [a formerly enslaved woman who transformed a slave jail into a school in 1866]. Everything in my body said, you should be paying attention. I knew that she was a woman whom not many people knew about, an unsung hero. I knew her story needed to be told. But I was terrified of it. I started Googling, finding everything I could about Mary Lumpkin, Robert Lumpkin [her enslaver], the Lumpkin’s Jail. It took over. That’s what opened the door to historical fiction for me.
That day on the trail, someone said it felt like the ancestors were there, waiting for us. I said, “I think they’re waiting for me to tell their story.” They followed me home and kept on pushing.
That’s a great origin story for Yellow Wife and the character of Pheby. What was the origin for The House of Eve?
Two things happened after I wrote Yellow Wife. One, it was well received. I was visualizing what I was going to do next, everything was lining up. I was going to write a YA novel set in Philadelphia. I had these four characters; one of them was named Ruby. She came to me as a girl in sexual danger. She was really smart and bright, but she didn’t have a support system. Her mother didn’t want her.
Then I remembered that my grandmother told me that she had been the black sheep of her family. She had gotten pregnant with my mother at 14, had her at 15. In the early 1950s there was so much shame around being pregnant outside marriage that they hid the pregnancy, even from the child that she had. My mother told me that she didn’t know her mother was her actual mother until she was in third grade because up until then she had lived with her grandmother.
What does that do to women on both sides, the mother and the child? What would her options have been? This was before Roe v. Wade, when women did what they were told to do. I started to research, and I found out about these maternity homes. Between 1945 and 1975, 1.5 million children were born in these homes, and most of them were adopted. Oftentimes it was forced adoption; there was coercion. As I researched, I couldn’t locate one single Black woman’s story. The homes were largely for White women. It was their babies that were desired, because there was no IVF. So I wondered, what did Black women do besides hide the shame and give the baby to a relative?
Then I found this book: Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham. He talks about the affluent Black elite in cities like New York and Washington. I thought, what if one of those people—these doctors, lawyers, judges—wanted to adopt? How would they get a baby with discretion? So the YA story and the affluent Black community in D.C. came together. I had two characters: Ruby in Philadelphia and Eleanor, who comes from a Midwestern city and doesn’t know Black people separate themselves by color until she sets foot on the campus of Howard University.
One of the most interesting characters in the book, and a loving surrogate mother to Ruby, is her Aunt Marie. Can you tell us where she came from?
Aunt Marie was based on another historical person: Gladys Bentley. She was a cross-dressing lesbian in the 1950s. She was a singer who performed in very famous speak-easies in New York City, and she was famous herself. She did what she wanted to do. She wore red lipstick, she wore a tuxedo with chandelier earrings. She sang raunchy songs and flirted with the women in the audience. I thought, what a wonderful character. I added on running numbers just to give her an edge. Aunt Marie lit up the page for me. Her words just came so easily. She made Ruby feel safe, but as a writer, I also felt safe when I was with Aunt Marie.
The novel has two main characters whose stories alternate and don’t come together until late in the book. Ruby’s chapters are told in first person, Eleanor’s in third person. How did you decide on that?
Ruby came to me in first person, like Pheby in Yellow Wife. I feel like the character is in my face, and the reader will feel really close to the story. Eleanor didn’t come until much later; I was getting my ducks in a row for Ruby when Eleanor appeared to me. Third person was true to the way the character felt to me, so I thought I’d try it. I’d never done it before.
When you write, do you feel that one of your purposes is embodying the histories of Black women?
I feel like these stories are in my DNA. With Yellow Wife it was very easy for me to access Pheby; her mother, Ruth; all of the enslaved people. It was easy for me to sort of fall into a portal and walk with them through their days.
With House of Eve, I grew up in Philadelphia. There are a lot of things my mother remembered, that my father told me. With House of Eve, I wanted to write about the impossible decisions that women have had to make all throughout history and how they survived. I hope this story will give you a perspective on another side of motherhood.
I stand on the shoulders of these women. Because of their sacrifices, I can do what I do now. I never forget that. It’s never lost on me.
Colette Bancroft is the book critic at the Tampa Bay Times.