Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070
Youma is a slave and the godchild of Madame Peyronette, who lives in the city of Saint Pierre. Youma’s mother had been the nurse of Madame Peyronette’s only daughter, Aimée, and the two children, white and black, have grown up together almost as sisters. Even when Aimée, in accord with Creole custom, is sent to a convent to have her manners polished, during the vacations she spends at home she is always in the company of the young black slave.
As the girls grow to womanhood, Aimée begs her mother on several occasions to give Youma her freedom, but Madame Peyronette feels that she is safeguarding Youma by keeping her in slavery. Privately, Madame Peyronette has decided first to find Youma a good husband and then, after she is safely married, to grant her freedom. Before Madame Peyronette can carry out her plan, Aimée marries Monsieur Desrivières, son of a wealthy old Creole family. Upon her marriage, Aimée asks that Youma be permitted to serve her in her new household, a request speedily granted by her mother.
Thirteen months after her wedding, Aimée gives birth to a baby girl. The child is named Marie; the blacks call her by a diminutive, Mayotte. Tragedy strikes the household a year later when Aimée, who had been caught in a chilling rain while riding in an open carriage, falls ill and dies within twenty-four hours. Before she dies, Aimée begs Youma to assume the duties of nurse to little Mayotte. Youma, recalling the kindnesses she has received at the hands of Aimée, vows to do the best she can for the motherless child.
Monsieur Desrivières goes to live on his sugar plantation at Anse-Marine, in another section of the island, for he cannot bear to remain in the same house after his wife’s death. Not long after, Madame Peyronette sends little Mayotte, who is in delicate health, to the plantation in Youma’s care. The grandmother believes that the climate at the plantation will be better for Mayotte.
The little girl and Youma love the life at the plantation; for both, it is an experience in people. Little Mayotte is irked at times because she is not permitted to mingle freely with the little black children—not because of issues of race but because of fear that the child will be in danger of sunstroke while participating in their games. To pass the time, Mayotte and Youma go for walks in shaded places or sit on the veranda while Youma tells folktales of her race.
One afternoon, Youma warns Mayotte that if she hears too many such tales during the day she will see zombies at night. Mayotte laughs and asks for another story, but that night, she screams to Youma that something is in her room. As Youma steps into the room to calm the child, she feels a tremendous snake under her foot. Keeping the snake imprisoned beneath her foot, Youma calls for help as the serpent wraps itself around her legs and body. When Monsieur Desrivières and the servants arrive with a light, they find Youma holding down a large and poisonous reptile. One of the slaves, Gabriel, swings a cutlass and lops off the snake’s head. Fortunately for Youma and the child, Youma had stepped on the snake immediately behind its head, so it had not been able to strike at her with its fangs.
This incident earns for Youma the respect of everyone at the plantation. Gabriel, in particular, shows his admiration by bringing gifts of fruit and spending the hours of early evening listening to her tell stories or sing to little Mayotte. He even makes a rustic bench that he places beside the little pool where Youma takes Mayotte to play in the water. Finally, Gabriel gives Youma a pair of earrings; when she puts them on, he knows that she is willing to marry him. Gabriel, wishing to marry Youma, is told that Madame Peyronette’s permission is necessary, as Youma belongs to her. When asked, Madame Peyronette refuses to give permission; she feels that it would be wrong to permit Youma, who has been brought up almost as a white girl, to marry Gabriel, who, although a fine man, is only a field hand.
Gabriel and Youma are grievously disappointed at the denial of their request. When Gabriel, a resourceful fellow, proposes that he and Youma elope and cross the channel to a British-held island where slavery has been abolished, Youma is ready to join him in the plan until she remembers her promise to care for Mayotte. With that promise in mind, she refuses to desert her charge.
Within a few days of the refusal, Youma and Mayotte are sent back to the city. Not long after (the year being 1848), word spreads through the West Indies that a republic has been proclaimed in France and that slavery will soon be abolished in Martinique. There are only 12,000 whites on the island and more than 150,000 blacks. The whites, knowing full well of the troubles in Haiti years before, become extremely cautious in dealing with the black people. Even so, rumors begin to spread that the whites are conspiring to retain slavery. An outbreak of violence begins over the imprudent whipping of a slave on the very eve of emancipation. Thousands of slaves pour into the city from the countryside.
Madame Peyronette, Youma, and Mayotte, after taking refuge with another family in a large, well-built stone house near the army barracks, believe that they will be safe from the mob. When the hordes of slaves pours into the city, however, a crowd gathers in front of the house and finally breaks in. As the whites on the second floor are temporarily out of their reach, the slaves set fire to the house. When some of the whites try to escape by leaping out of windows, the mob kills them immediately.
Youma, in an effort to save Mayotte and herself, goes out on a balcony and identifies herself as a slave. Gabriel, who happens to be in the crowd, tries to save them, but the bloodthirsty mob refuses to let the white child be spared. Youma, rather than leave Mayotte to die alone, stands on the balcony with the child until the walls of the house collapse and kill them both.