This is the second of two books I’ve recently read, about the relationships between women and their slaves in the South before the Civil War (which I discovered is also called “The Recent Unpleasantness”). Yellow Crocus was written by Laila Ibrahim. In her own words,”I self published Yellow Crocus in 2011 when agent after agent told me that no one would want to read a story about the love between an enslaved black woman and her privileged white charge.” She is currently working on her next novel, set in a different time period, but with a similar theme: loving across difference.
On April 14, 1837, 20 year old Mattie, a Southern slave with a small child, is called to her owner’s house to serve as a wet nurse to his newborn baby, Elizabeth. She has to move into the plantation house, leaving her own baby behind. When yet another baby is born, Elizabeth is taken from Mattie, who is given the new baby to wet nurse. Mattie becomes sick and nearly dies in Mattie’s absence, so her mother reluctantly returns her to Mattie’s care and finds another wet nurse. Thus begins an intense relationship that will shape both of their lives for decades to come.
Mattie is more of a mother to Elizabeth than her own remote, societally governed mother, and from her trips to the slave quarters with Mattie, forms lasting bonds with the slaves related to and surrounding Mattie. As in The Invention of Wings, talk of abolition and the legality of slave-holding penetrates the Oak Hill plantation, and the reader is reminded -in less graphic ways – of the way in which slaves were treated, worked, rented out and sold, including Mattie’s son, Samuel.
When Elizabeth outgrows Mattie, their stories diverge, Mattie being sent to another plantation where she is defiant and is whipped, but continues to seek a way to escape with her son, a plan that was hatched at Oak Hill many years before. Elizabeth is forced into the societal norms of parties and events designed to find her an appropriate husband; she gradually becomes aware of the vast difference between the lives of slaves and whites and rebels against what is expected of her. The author lovingly and imaginatively makes their separate lives evolve and eventually re-entwine.
This is a well-written story of love, determination, courage, cruelty and heartbreak – one which inexorably draws the reader in and tugs at your emotions. It is definitely a much more gentle novel than The Invention of Wings; it has a satisfyingly happy ending, which ties things up in a neat package, but is somewhat less than realistic. However, the historical details are well researched, and the writing is so good that I recommend it and will definitely read the next book by this author.