I can’t remember how I came across the novel Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim except that I’m always searching for quality novels that portray both the diversity and unity of the human spirit that my students might enjoy reading. I also can’t remember how I came across a review for the novel while I was only about a quarter of the way through the book, but I noted that several people on Goodreads had given the book a low rating, citing “lack of torture” and the fact that “it depicts a white woman who cares about a slave” as negative aspects of the book. Because Yellow Crocus explores the lives of two strong female characters – one a wet nurse and mammy who is forced to give up what little she has to care for the other main character in her charge, I continued reading – ever mindful of whether or not the book glossed over slavery as “not so bad” as one reviewer put it.
That reader, and others like him, missed the entire point of the novel.
Though Mattie has no choice but to leave her own infant son behind in the slave quarters, raised by others, as she moves into the big house to nurse and then raise baby Lisbeth, she does love the innocent baby. She sings to her, soothes her when she’s sick, and carefully teaches her life lessons – ever mindful of her “place” in the house and in society. Critics who note the absence of torture seem to have missed every instance of how traumatic life was for the enslaved characters in the novel. Men have been tortured and murdered, and several knowingly risk their lives just to learn to read and write. Families are regularly torn apart at the whim of masters who sell their slaves to different owners. Even Mattie eventually risks her life to flee to freedom with her newborn daughter, and Lisbeth comes to find out that habitual rape of enslaved women by masters is just one reason why Mattie risks it all to escape. “Happy” people, as some reviewers called them, do not risk their lives to escape oppression. Strength and resiliency should never be mistaken for happiness. Perhaps some readers lack the empathy and emotional depth to understand the pain that enslaved people endure, and that sometimes focusing on the psychological torture is just as important as describing the physical.
The relationship between Mattie and Lisbeth is key in this novel, and Mattie plants the seeds that allow Lisbeth to grow into an abolitionist against her family’s wishes. We cannot underestimate the power that such real relationships had to change the course of this nation’s history. Lisbeth saw Mattie as a human being. She loved her “more than [her] own mama.” When we interact with people we’ve been told are “others,” we gain empathy. This is a healing novel, and though it does not provide a full picture of slavery or all experiences (no one book can do that, nor does this one claim to do so), it shows that change occurs when we build relationships based on our shared humanity. Laila Ibrahim provides a message of hope that we still need as we work to heal racial tensions. Mattie and Lisbeth note “the vast distance between us” even while looking into each other’s eyes, but their love and mutual respect forms an unbreakable bond. Acknowledging that such relationships existed does not negate the horrors of slavery at all. It does quite the opposite, in fact; we should feel horrified that anyone was ever complicit in such crimes against feeling, thinking people, and stand up against ongoing injustice. This isn't another story in which the white lady saves a black person (at least 3 movies come to mind). Mattie saves Lisbeth, to quote Titanic, "in every way a person can be saved." Beautiful.