The 2014 novel Yellow Crocus
by author Laila Ibrahim is set in the antebellum South and tells the story of a white girl growing up in a slave-owning family. Drawing on her background in developmental psychology, and in particular in the attachment theory of how babies bond with caregivers, Ibrahim imagines what it might be like for a child to suddenly be exposed to the idea that her most beloved caretaker does not actually count as a full person in the eyes of other adults. Although optimistic and hopeful, this young adult novel does not shy away from some of the harsh realities of slave life. Instead, we see the protagonist struggle with and ultimately reject the hateful ideology of those around her.
The novel takes place in the mid-1800s on the Virginia plantation Fair Oakes. When the story begins, the plantation owner’s wife, Miss Anne Wainwright, has just given birth to the baby Elizabeth. Following the tradition and custom of the time, Miss Anne cannot imagine nursing the baby herself – like the vast majority of women born to privilege, she decides to place the baby in the care of a wet-nurse.
An enslaved woman, Mattie, has just given birth to her own child – a boy named Samuel. But she is forced to give up seeing him or taking care of him because she is now to be the full-time caregiver for Elizabeth, whom she calls Lisbeth. At first Mattie is very angry at the fact that she can only see Samuel for a few hours on Sundays, but she tries to console herself through the loving relationship she forms with Lisbeth.
As Lisbeth grows from a baby into a child, Mattie becomes her nanny, her closest friend, and a surrogate mother figure. Lisbeth’s own family is strict, conservative, and primarily sees Lisbeth as one of the ways to expand the family’s prominence and wealth through eventual marriage. On the other hand, from Mattie Lisbeth learns deep-seated religious faith, a taste for simple and delicious food, and the beauty of the yellow crocus flowers that Mattie waits for each spring. Miss Anne sees with growing discomfort that her daughter prefers the company of her enslaved nanny to that of her blood relations.
Mattie experiences a rare moment of family togetherness when her husband Emmanuel gets a chance to visit her and Samuel briefly. As a result of this visit, Mattie becomes pregnant with her second child, and Miss Anne sees the pregnancy is the perfect opportunity to separate Lisbeth and Mattie. Mattie is sent back to slave quarters, and eventually Lisbeth learns that no matter how much she grieves or misses her confidant, Mattie is not coming back.
Lisbeth’s life begins to revolve almost completely around finding a good match. Her mother and grandmother give her an education in the confining role that she will have to play for the rest of her life as a society wife. Miss Anne has her eye on Edward Cunningham, the oldest son of the wealthiest plantation owner, as the perfect match for Lisbeth. But Edward is unpleasant and full of himself, and covertly Lisbeth knows that a less prominent young man, Matthew Johnson, would make her much happier.
After Mattie gives birth, she and Emmanuel begin to discuss more seriously their deep-seated hope of running away from the plantation and somehow making their way north. Although they are not sure what they will find there, it will clearly be a life filled with more opportunity and more freedom for their children. Emmanuel and Samuel manage to escape. Mattie is beaten for information about how they escaped and where they are, but no matter how much she is tortured, she does not reveal any information and eventually she is released. Soon, she too is able to escape with her baby.
Unable to stand up to her mother’s designs for her, Lisbeth finds herself engaged to be married to Edward. But one day she is completely horrified to discover her future husband in the process of raping one of the enslaved women who works in the fields. Lisbeth is so profoundly shocked at this, that it is clear just how naïve she has been about the life of enslaved people, and just how much she has been sheltered from the true realities around her. When she tells her mother about what she has seen, Miss Anne brushes it off as just something men do. Lisbeth gathers her strength, breaks off her engagement to the monstrous Edward, and marries the kinder Matthew. Leaving behind plantation life, the newlyweds move to the North.
Several years later, when Lisbeth is in the throes of a very difficult delivery, she gets help from a local midwife – who by coincidence is Mattie. The women recognize each other, and the novel ends with them slowly rebuilding at least some of the connection they shared when Lisbeth was a little girl.