Although it is fiction, Ms. Ibrahim has written a bittersweet slave narrative of the relationship between a black slave, Mattie, and the white child, Lisbeth, that she raised from birth. It is a heart-rending story of people in dire circumstances who learn to survive. The story could easily be true.
The story takes place a few years before the U.S. Civil War. Mattie was a field slave who recently gave birth to her own baby, Samuel, but was forced to give Samuel’s breast milk to Lisbeth and give her son over for months at a time to Rebecca, a fellow field hand, who nursed Mattie’s baby, and her “grandfather” Poppy who carried the baby to Rebecca each day. She only got to see her own son for a short time on Sunday afternoons and only got to see her “husband” Emmanuelle once per month when he came from another plantation. Of course, Mattie is an unpaid, involuntary caregiver to Lisbeth.
Before being sent to the big house, Mattie slept on a palette on a dirt floor. In the big house, Mattie slept on a small bed and wore a simple dress given to her by the housekeeper. Mattie felt glass at a window and looked in a mirror for the first time in her life. Slaves told time by the sun so Mattie couldn’t tell time by the clocks in the big house. The yellow crocus is the first sign of spring and was one of the many signs by which slaves recognized the seasons.
The author digs more into the emotional and psychological consequences of this kind of “life”. She only gives a hint of some of the horrors faced by slaves. Mattie gets whipped by another plantation owner when her son who was sold to him and her husband run away to make a better life for Mattie and her new baby girl Jordan. A black child touching a white child could get him killed. Learning to read or teaching another black person to read could get a black person killed.
The author also gives a view of the white family’s plight. They wanted to marry off their daughters to the most wealthy plantation owners that they could. Lisbeth’s mother is one such daughter. She is supposed to “sit still and look pretty”, have sex with her husband just enough to have children, put up with her husband’s need to have sex with young unwilling slave girls like Lisbeth’s maid, etc.
I enjoyed Ms. Ibrahim’s writing style which was warm and compassionate to all of her characters. However, slavery will always be an uncomfortable subject.
Ibrahim, Laila, Yellow Crocus, Lake Union Publishing, 2014
Review written by Rosa L. Griffin